« AnteriorContinuar »
A BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL PREFACE,
IN FOUR VOLUMES.
INTRODUCTORY AND CRITICAL PREFACE
Of all the works that have been written in the English language, the series of Essays under the title of THE SPECTATOR has undoubtedly had the greatest influence in reforming the manners, and correcting the vices of the English people. Great as is the intrinsic merit of these delightful compositions, their merit as compositions is nothing to their merit as agents in a great moral reformation to which we owe all the blessings of the present century. All Englishmen are deeply indebted to those who have purified the public mind from that dreadful taint of immorality which infected it at the time when the first of the SPECTATORS appeared. These papers still charm us by their quiet humour, delicate satire, and genuine English spirit, but to appreciate them justly, we must remember the times in which they were written.
The Puritans believed that they could make everybody as stern and rigid as themselves. By attempting to make all men religious through legislation, they succeeded in making a nation of hypocrites, who on the day when Charles the Second was restored, threw off the mask, and became a nation of scoffers. Then was seen such a spectacle of vice and infamy as never before was beheld in our beloved English land. Decency was disregarded, piety was ridiculed, virtue became a jest, honesty was folly. The philosophy of Hobbes began to prevail universally; for philosophers, like other people, adapt their philosophy to the fashion. In any other age, Hobbes would have been boldly confuted and silenced; his errors would have been pointed out, and the good that may be culled b 3
from the evil in his works, would have been preserved. In the seventeenth century this was not to be. Philosophers became materialists; divines, persecutors; patriots, pensioners of Louis the Fourteenth; and poets, panderers to every vice. The court was the natural receptacle of all this torrent of filth and profligacy, and from the monarch to the page, all was evil.
Yet there are other people in the world besides poets, courtiers, politicians, and monarchs. The great multitude beyond the precincts of the court and the metropolis, was still pure at heart, and only wanted a fitting opportunity to raise its voice against the fashionable immoralities.
To afford this occasion was the great mission of THE SPECTATOR. It is true, that some years before it appeared, Jeremy Collier had severely condemned the indecencies of the dramatists, and his exertions to purify English literature ought ever to be mentioned with gratitude. But Jeremy Collier was a divine, a non-juror, and a scholar; he could not write altogether in the tone of a man of the world; and his writings, with all their merits, have some degree of pedantry, which deterred many readers from their perusal. He did much good, but much remained to be done.
When we glance into the popular works of that time, it is almost shocking to see to what a low estimation female virtue had fallen. That chivalrous feeling, that moral purity, that high-toned delicacy, which are so characteristic of the great old English writers, however much they might indulge themselves in freer expressions than would now be tolerated, appear altogether to have vanished from the literature of the latter part of the seventeenth century. Spenser and Shakespeare were but little studied; no writer was imbued with their spirit; the Elizabethan age was not much admired for its literature, although it was highly praised for its political glory. French literature was in the highest esteem, and our authors seemed in danger of forgetting their nationality in their enthusiastic admiration of the poets and critics who were singing the praises of Louis the Fourteenth,
The French writers were generally decent, but decency was the only quality which their English admirers refused to imitate. It is now scarcely credible that it was the custom of women, who thought themselves modest and virtuous, to go in masks to witness the first representation of a drama, before its glaring indecencies could be generally known,