Imágenes de páginas
PDF
EPUB
[graphic][merged small]
[ocr errors]

IR ROGER DE COVERLEY, the younger offspring of the same parents with Bick erstafi has already received a distinct existence (by being detached from the general body of the

Spectator"), an advantage of which the latter, though entitled to it by the right of primogeniture, as well as its own inherent claims, has hitherto been deprived. In both the " Tatler” and “Spectator" there is a dramatic framework, and the form of a club running throughout and binding them together. The aim of the present volume is to detach this narrative or story in the former work, so as to form a sort of novelette. It thus appears as, in form at least, almost a new work, and, with the introduction and literary illustrations, partially so in matter, whilst, at the same time, it has the prestige of a recognized classic.

Few men have deserved better of society and their country than he who, at the opening of the last century, under the mask of Bíckerstaff

, brought his powers of wit, and humour, and reason, to bear 60 successfully on the entertainment, instruction, and improvement of that age; and whose labours, though in some measure rendered obsolete by the very success that attended them in the removal of the vices and absurdities at which they aimed), and other causes, have been of incalculable benefit in moulding the taste of successive generations, and imparting a tone to the mind, especially in the plastic season of youth, when it is more ready to receive impressions. Indeed, these and kindred volumes, were long regarded as among

[graphic]

B

the most indispensable portions of every family library, and the most delightful and instructive guides to initiate the youthful mind in the charms of elegant literature. Nor can the spirit and tone of these papers ever cease to charm, or their exquisite social painting to interest, whatever the changes of modes, as long as the people to whom they were addressed remains a nation, or the English tongue a spoken language. And though the mass of the modern and more exciting productions of the press have overlaid them and removed them out of view, yet, when brought under our notice, we return with a freshness of feeling to the guides and companions of our youth, as we would to an old and long-lost friend, or from new to old wine of exquisite flavour. Their consummate excellence is evidenced by the single fact that, though their general manner and style have been adopted by a great variety of the most classic writers of succeeding times, these elder prototypes of their class have never since been rivalled or eclipsed by any kindred efforts of genius, but continue to shine as cynosures amid the brilliant galaxy of the periodical essayists.

For half a century preceding the appearance of the “ Tatlers," these kingdoms had been the scene of civil strife, the most cruel and distressing of the forms of war, with little intermission. The bright streaks that had appeared upon the horizon, and seemed to herald a halcyon time of repose and prosperity, on the setting of “ that bright occidental star," Queen Elizabeth-in the settlement of the question of succession by the union of the two kingdoms, and the consequent elevation of a beartless royal pedant to the throne-proved but a deceitful lull, a flattering and fickle gleam of sunshine, the precursor of a long day of storm and gloom. With much of versatile talent, an evil fatality seemed to cling to that Stuart race, which, like the judgment denounced against some of the old Hebrew kings, pursued them relentlessly till it had left them neither root nor branch.

That doomed house had only reached its next in descent when an indignant nation, in an age, doubtless, cast in a too! stern and uncompromising mould, rose and flung a perfidious and would-be arbitrary ruler from his seat, and ultimately exacted a retribution of terrible vindictiveness on the scaffold. The royal adherents, on the contrary, prided themselves in a laxity directly the reverse of the stern mannerism of their opponents (so that the term cavalier, by which they were distinguished, has become synonymous with what is free and easy); and when, after the restoration, the followers of the exiled court returned, they brought back with them this disposition, aggravated with the frivolities of French manners and the licentiousness of French morals, which impregnated the atmosphere with a moral miasma. Again, with the last of that ill-fated race, following his family traditions with a blind fatuity that seemed to challenge his fate, and was equally reprobated by friends and enemies, another deadly struggle for liberty and right ensued, which, though glorious and successful, was productive of serious, though unavoidable, temporary disadvantages.

Amid this furious strife of parties, the tottering of thrones, and the rise and fall of dynasties, those arts of peace were necessarily retarded, the cultivation of which contributes equally to individual happiness and the prosperity and embellishment of society. The little glimmer of science which appeared under the auspices of the famous Boyle, after a few feeble flickerings, expired, though subsequently revived under the title of the Royal Society. A general ignorance and licentiousness, both in principle and practice, prevailed. The streams of public amusement were polluted at their source, for the writers of the drama pandered shamelessly to the popular taste; and it was customary for ladies who had a regard to reputation to frequent the theatres in masks, and to attend the first performance of any new piece, before they could be supposed to be aware of the prurient jest or indecent allusion. All decorum was a jest—the most sacred social institutions considered a subject of polite raillery. Gambling and duelling were the pursuits of those styling themselves pre

[ocr errors]

eminently men of honour. Amusements of the most brutal and savage description ---prize-fighting, bull-baiting, and bear-baiting-were prevalent among the populace, and participated in by many among those of the highest rank. Conversation was at the lowest ebb, as regarded rationality; literature was deemed synonymous with pedantry, and religion was a scoff. Life was spent-among the populace, in ignorance and brutal entertainments; and among the polite, in a round of frivolities and trifles, of show and ostentation.

Such was the state of society at the opening of the eighteenth century, when Isaac Bickerstaff, like a bold knight errant, appeared upon the scene with his Ithurial spear.* And never, perhaps, were the beneficial effects of à right application of wit more happily exemplified. It was no fruitless, Quixotic adventure in which he engaged it was a very serious one, though entered upon with a smiling countenance. There was medicine in the prescription, but it was sweetened over to suit the palate. It is indeed the peculiar attribute of wit, that it,“ like a diamond, cuts its bright way through” the most obdurate materials. It assails the mind in its most vulnerable points, its most unguarded avenues. Its approaches are so quick, bright, and subtle, that a breach is effected before opposition has time to be aroused, or is aware where to expect the attack. By placing objects in a new and striking light, it causes antagonism to suspend its operations in surprise, and ends by making it yield at discretion. Unlike the sullen and morose moralist, who defeats his own end by rousing opposition—and too often, while professing to be the advocate of virtue, is only indulging his own spleen—the wit converts an antagonist into a ready ally, or, at the least, gains for his cause a willing hearing. That Bickerstaff was actuated by a serious purpose we have his own express statement. "I have really acted in these cases with honesty," he says, in his general preface, and am concerned that it should be thought otherwise, for wit," he finely adds, “ if a man

* See “ Tatler," No. 237.

« AnteriorContinuar »