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THE WARTONS. PERCY. CHATTERTON. MACPHERSON.
THERE is much more of fancy and true poetry, though less sound and less pretension, in the compositions of Thomas Warton, who first made himself known by a spirited reply to Mason's Isis in 1749, when he was only a young man of twenty-one, and afterwards produced many short pieces, all evidencing a genuine poetic eye and taste. Thomas Warton, however, who lived till 1790, chiefly owes the place he holds in our literature to his prose works — his Observations on the Fairy Queen, his edition of the Minor Poems of Milton, and, above all, his admirable History of English Poetry, which, unfinished as it is, is still perhaps our greatest work in the department of literary history. Of the three quarto volumes the first appeared in 1774, the second in 1778, the last in 1781. Dr. Joseph Warton, the elder brother of Thomas, is also the writer of some agreeable verses; but the book by which his name will live is his Essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope, the first volume of which was published, anonymously, in 1756, the second not till 1782. He died in 1800, in his seventyeighth year.
The Wartons may be regarded as the founders of a new school of poetic criticism in this country, which, romantic rather than classical in its spirit (to employ a modern nomenclature), and professing to go to nature for its principles instead of taking them on trust from the practice of the Greek and Roman poets, or the canons of their commentators, assisted materially in guiding as well as strengthening the now reviving love for our older national poetry. But perhaps the publication which was as yet at once the most remarkable product of this new taste, and the most effective agent in its diffusion, was Percy's celebrated Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, which first appeared in 1765. The reception of this book was the same that what is natural and true always meets with when brought into fair competition with the artificial ; that is to say, when the latter is no longer new any more than the former :
“As one who, long in populous city pent,
The smell of grain, or tedded grass, or kine,
Or dairy, each rural sight, each rural sound ;” such pleasure took the reader of those rude old ballads in their simplicity, directness, and breezy freshness and force, thus suddenly coming upon him after being sated with mere polish and ornament. And connected with the same matter is the famous imposture of Rowley's poems, by which a boy of seventeen, the marvellous Chatterton, deceived in the first instance a large portion of the public, and, after the detection of the fraud, secured to himself a respectable place among the original poets of his country. Chatterton, who terminated his existence by his own hand in August, 1770, produced the several imitations of ancient English poetry which he attributed to Thomas Rowley, a monk of the fifteenth century, in that and the preceding year. But this was the age
of remarkable forgeries of this description ; Chatterton's poems of Rowley having been preceded, and perhaps in part suggested, by Macpherson's poems of Ossian. The first specimens of the latter were published in 1760, under the title of Fragments of Ancient Poetry, collected in the Highlands of Scotland, and translated from the Gaelic or Erse language ; and they immediately excited both an interest and a controversy, neither the one nor the other of which has quite died away even to the present hour. One circumstance, which has contributed to keep up the dispute about Ossian so much longer than that about Rowley, no doubt, is, that there was some small portion of truth mixed up with Macpherson's deception, whereas there was none at all in Chatterton's; but the Ossianic poetry, after all that has been said about its falsehood of style and substance as well as of pretension, making it out to be thus a double lie, must still have some qualities wonderfully adapted to allure the popular taste. Both Chatterton and Macpherson Awrote a quantity of modern English verse in their own names; but nothing either did in this way was worth much: they evidently felt most at ease in their masks.
The dramatic literature of the earlier part of the reign of George III. is very voluminous, but consists principally of comedies
and farces of modern life, all in prose. Home, indeed, the author of Douglas, which came out in 1757, followed that first successful effort by about half a dozen other attempts in the same style, the 'ast of which, entitled Alfred, was produced in 1778; but they were all failures. Horace Walpole's great tragedy, the Mysterious Mother, although privately printed in 1768, was never acted, and was not even published till many years after. The principal writers whose productions occupied the stage were Goldsmith, Garrick, and Foote, who all died in the earlier part of the reign of George III. ; and Macklin, Murphy, Cumberland, Colman, Mrs. Cowley, and Sheridan, who mostly survived till after the commencement of the
present century. Goldsmith's two capital comedies of the Good-Natured Man, and She Stoops to Conquer, were brought out, the former in 1768, the latter in 1773. To Garrick, a miracle of an actor, but no more than a smartish man of talent off the boards, we owe, besides many alterations and adaptations of the works of Shakspeare and other preceding dramatic writers, the lively farces of The Lying Valet and Miss in her Teens, both, however, produced before 1760; and he is also commonly stated to have been in part the author of the excellent comedy of The Clandestine Marriage, brought out in 1766, which was principally written by Colman. The still favorite farce of High Life Below Stairs, first acted in 1759, which used also to be attributed to Garrick, is now understood to have been written by the Rev. James Townley, assisted by Dr. Hoadly, the author of The Suspicious Husband. Foote produced twenty-two comic pieces, mostly farcical and satirical, between 1752 and 1778; of which The Minor (1760), The Liar (1761), and The Mayor of Garratt (1763), still keep the stage. He was by nature a mimic, and a somewhat coarse one, rather than a wit. Macklin, also an actor as well as Garrick and Foote, is the author of the very clever and effective comedy of The Man of the World, which was brought out in Ireland, his native country, in 1764, under the name of The Free
1 In a copy of Baker's Biographia Dramatica, edit. of 1782, we find the following MS. note appended to the notice of this play, at p. 57 of vol. ii. : - “Garrick composed two acts, which he sent Mr. Colman, desiring him to put them together, or do what he would with them. I did put them together, said Mr. Colman; for I put them in the fire, and wrote the play myself. I had this anecdote from Mr. Colman's mouth. J. W."
2 See, however, a much higher estimate of Foote in an article, equally lively and learned, in the Quarterly Review, No. 490, for Sept. 1854.
Born Scotchman, although the daring delineation of the principal character, the renowned Sir Pertinax Macsycophant, debarred it for many years from the English stage. Macklin, who did not die till 1797, is remarkable for having lived till the age of a hundred and seven, and for, what is still more unexampled, having continued his appearances on the stage almost till he was a hundred. Colman, an accomplished scholar, and well known for his translations of the Plays of Terence and Horace's Art of Poetry, and før various other literary performances, commenced dramatist in 1760, by the production of a clever and successful little piece, which he entitled Polly Honeycombe, a Dramatic Novel; and between twenty and thirty more comedies, farces, and alterations of older plays proceeded from his pen before 1780, among which his comedy of The Jealous Wife, produced in 1761, ranks as the best along with that of The Clandestine Marriage, already mentioned. Colman lived till 1794. Murphy, also an elegant scholar, and the translator of Tacitus and Sallust, is the author, among other dramatic productions of less note, of the farce of The Upholsterer (1758), of the comedies of The Way to Keep Him (1760), All in the Wrong (1761), Know your Own Mind (1777), and of the tragedy of The Grecian Daughter (1772). Murphy died in 1805, in his eighty-fifth year. Cumberland, a voluminous poet, or versifier, novelist, pamphleteer, essayist, critic, &c., &c., as well as a dramatist, began to write for the stage so early as 1761, and, amid much of what he did that is forgotten, will continue to be remembered for his striking comedies of The West Indian, The Fashionable Lover, The Jew, and The Wheel of Fortune. This somewhat overweening and superficial but still ingenious and not unamiable man died in 1811, at the age of seventy-nine. Mrs. Cowley's pleasant comedy of The Belle's Stratagem was brought out with great success in 1780: this lady, whose first play, The Runaway, appeared in 1776, wrote also a number of long poems, now all forgotten, and survived till 1809. But the most brilliant contributions made to our dramatic literature in this age were Sheridan's celebrated comedies of The Rivals, brought out in 1775, when the author was only in his twenty-fifth year, The Duenna, which followed the same year, and The School for Scandal, which crowned the reputation of the modern Congreve, in 1777. After all that had been written, indeed, meritoriously enough in many instances, by his contemporaries and immediate
predecessors, these plays of Sheridan's were the only additions that had yet been made to the classic comedy of Congreve, Vanbrugh, and Farquhar; and perhaps we may say that they are still the last it has received. Sheridan's wit is as polished as Congreve's, and its flashes, if not quite so quick and dazzling, have a softer, a more liquid light; he may be said to stand between the highly artificial point and concentration of Congreve and the Irish ease and gayety of Farquhar, wanting, doubtless, what is most characteristic of either, but also combining something of each. Sheridan had likewise produced all his other dramatic pieces — The Trip to Scarborough, The Critic, &c. — before 1780 ; although he lived for thirty-six years after that date.
The direction of so large a portion of the writing talent of this age to the comic drama is an evidence of the extended diffusion of literary tastes and accomplishments among the class most conversant with those manners and forms of social life which chiefly supply the materials of modern comedy. To this period has been sometimes assigned the commencement of the pursuit of literature as a distinct profession in England ; now, too, we may say, began its domestic cultivation among us — the practice of writing for the public as the occupation and embellishment of a part of that leisure which necessarily abounds in an advanced state of society, not only among persons possessing the means of living without exertion of any kind, but almost throughout the various grades of those who are merely raised above the necessity of laboring with their hands. Another indication of the same thing is the great increase that now took place in the number of female authors. Among the writers of plays, novels, and poetry, besides Mrs. Cowley, mentioned above, may be noticed Mrs. Sheridan (originally Miss Frances Chamberlayne), — the admirable mother of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, for whose sake Samuel Johnson was contented to keep on terms, so long as she lived, with the vain, gasconading, mercurial projector and adventurer, her husband, — the authoress of the two comedies of The Discovery, brought out with great success in 1763,