History of English Literature

by Hippolyte Adolphe Taine

Two years before the appearance of his "Histoire de la Littérature Anglaise" Taine had aroused a lively interest in England by his "Notes sur l'Angleterre," a work showing much wayward sympathy for the English character, and an irregular understanding of English institutions. The same mixed impression was produced by the laboriously conceived and brilliantly written "History of English Literature." Taine wrote to a theory that often worked out into curious contradictions. His method was to show how men have been shaped by the environments and tendencies of their age. Unfortunately, having formed an idea of the kind of literature our age should produce according to his theory, he had eyes for nothing except what he expected to find. He went to literature for his confirmations of his reading of history. Taine's criticism, in consequence, is often incomplete, and more piquant than trustworthy. The failure to appreciate some of the great English writers—notably Shakespeare and Milton—is patent. Still, the critic always had the will to be just, and no foreigner has devoted such complimentary labour to the formation of a complete estimate of English literature. The book was published in 1863–4.

Saxon and Norman

History has been revolutionised by the study of literatures. A work of literature is now perceived, not to be a solitary caprice, but a transcript of contemporary manners, from which we may read the style of man's feelings for centuries back. By the study of a literature, one may construct a moral history, the psychology of a people. To find a complete literature is rare. Only ancient Greece, and modern France and England offer a complete series of great literary monuments. I have chosen England because it is alive, and one can see it with more detachment than one can see France.

Huge white bodies, cool-blooded, with fierce blue eyes, reddish flaxen hair; ravenous stomachs filled with meat and cheese and heated by strong drinks; a cold temperament, slow to love, home-staying, prone to drunkenness—these are to this day the features which descent and climate preserve to the English race. The heavy human brute gluts himself with sensations and noise, and this appetite finds a grazing-ground in blows and battle. Strife for strife's sake such is their pleasure. A race so constituted was predisposed to Christianity by its gloom, and beyond Christianity foreign culture could not graft any fruitful branch on this barbarous stock. The Norman conquerors of France had by intermarriage become a Latin race, and nimbly educated themselves from the Gauls, who boasted of "talking with ease." When they crossed to England, they introduced new manners and a new spirit. They taught the Saxon how ideas fall in order, and which ideas are agreeable; they taught him how to be clear, amusing, and pungent. At length, after long impotence of Norman literature, which was content to copy, and of Saxon literature, which bore no fruit, a definite language was attained, and there was room for a great writer.


Then Geoffrey Chaucer appeared, inventive though a disciple, original though a translator, and by his genius, education, and life was enabled to know and depict a whole world, but above all to satisfy the chivalric world and the splendid courts which shone upon the heights. He belonged to it, and took such part in it that his life from end to end was that of a man of the world and a man of action.

Two motives raised the middle age above the chaos of barbarism, one religious, which fashioned the gigantic cathedrals, the other secular, which built the feudal fortresses. The one produced the adventurous hero, the other the mystical monk. These master-passions gave way at last to monotony of habit and taste for worldliness. Something was then needed to make the evening hours flow sweetly. The lords at table have finished dinner; the poet arrives; they ask him for his subject, and he answers "Love."

There is something more pleasant than a fine narrative, and that is a collection of fine narratives, especially when the narratives are all of different colouring. This collection Chaucer gave us, and more. If over-excited, he is always graceful, polished, full of light banter, half-mockeries, somewhat gossipy. An elegant speaker, facile, every ready to smile, he makes of love not a passion but a gay feast. But if he was romantic and gay after the fashion of his age, he also had a fashion of his own. He observes characters, notes their differences, studies the coherence of their parts, brings forward living and distinct persons—a thing unheard of in his time. It is the English positive good sense and aptitude for seeing the inside of things beginning to appear. Chaucer ceases to gossip, and thinks. Each tale is suited to the teller. Instead of surrendering himself to the facility of glowing improvisation, he plans. All his tales are bound together by veritable incidents which spring from the characters of the personages, and are such as we light upon in our travels. He advanced beyond the threshold of his art, but he paused in the vestibule. He half-opens the door of the temple, but does not take his seat there; at most he sat down at intervals. His voice is like that of a boy breaking into manhood. He sets out as if to quit the middle ages; but in the end he is still there.

The Renaissance

For seventeen centuries a deep and sad thought had weighed upon the spirit of man—the idea of his impotence and decadence. Greek corruption, Roman oppression, and the dissolution of the old world had given it birth; it, in its turn, had produced a stoical resignation, an epicurean indifference, Alexandrian mysticism, and the Christian hope in the Kingdom of God. At last invention makes another start. All was renewed, America and the Indies were added to the map. The system of the universe was propounded, the experimental sciences were set on foot, art and literature shot forth like a harvest, and religion was transformed. It seems as though men had suddenly opened their eyes and seen. They attained a new and superior kind of intelligence which produced extraordinary warmth of soul, a super-abundant and splendid imagination, reveries, visions, artists, believers, founders, creators. This was Europe's grand age, and the most notable epoch of human growth. To this day we live from its sap. To vent the feelings, to set free boldly on all the roads of existence the pack of appetites and instincts, this was the craving which the manners of the time betrayed. It was "merry England," as they called it then. It was not yet stern and constrained. It extended widely, freely, and rejoiced to find itself so expanded. A few sectarians, chiefly in the towns, clung gloomily to the Bible; but the Court, and the men of the world sought their teachers and their heroes from Pagan Greece and Rome. Nearer still was another Paganism, that of Italy, and civilisation was drawn thence as from a spring. Transplanted into different races and climates, this paganism received from each a distinct character—in England it becomes English. Here Surrey—the English Petrarch—introduced a new style, a manly style, which marks a great transformation of the mind. He looks forward to the last line while writing the first, and keeps the strongest word for the last. He collects his phrases in harmonious periods, and by his inversions adds force to his ideas. Every epithet contains an idea, every metaphor a sentiment. Those who have ideas now possess in the new-born art an instrument capable of expressing them. In half a century English writers had introduced every artifice of language, period, and style.

Luxuriance and irregularity were the two features of the new literature. Sir Philip Sydney may be selected as exhibiting the greatness and the folly of the prevailing taste. How can his pastoral epic, "The Arcadia," be described? It is but a recreation, a poetical romance written in the country for the amusement of a sister, a work of fashion, a relic, but it shows the best of the general spirit, the jargon of the world of culture, fantastic imagination, excessive sentiment, a medley of events which suited men scarcely recovered from barbarism. At his period men's heads were full of tragical images, and Sydney's "Arcadia" contains enough of them to supply half a dozen epics. And Sydney was only a soldier in an army; there is a multitude about him, a multitude of poets. How happens it that when this generation was exhausted true poetry ended in England as true painting in Italy and Flanders? It was because an epoch of the mind came and passed away. These men had new ideas and no theories in their heads. Their emotions were not the same as ours. For them all things had a soul, and though they had no more beauty then than now, men found them more beautiful.


Among all the poems of this time there is one truly divine—Spenser's "Faërie Queene." Everything in his life was calculated to lead Spenser to ideal poetry; but the heart within is the true poet. Before all, his was a soul captivated by sublime and chaste beauty. Philosophy and landscapes, ceremonies and ornaments, splendours of the country and the court, on all which he painted or thought he impressed his inward nobleness. Spenser remains calm in the fervour of invention. He is epic, that is, a narrator. No modern is more like Homer. Like Homer, he is always simple and clear; he makes no leap, he omits no argument, he preserves the natural sequence of ideas while presenting noble classical images. Like Homer, again, he is redundant, ingenuous: even childish. He says everything, and repeats without limit his ornamental epithets.

To expand in epic faculties in the region where his soul is naturally borne, he requires an ideal stage, situated beyond the bounds of reality, in a world which could never be. His most genuine sentiments are fairy-like. Magic is the mould of his mind. He carries everything that he looks upon into an enchanted land. Only the world of chivalry could have furnished materials for so elevated a fancy. It is the beauty in the poet's heart which his whole works try to express, a noble yet laughing beauty, English in sentiment, Italian in externals, chivalric in subject, representing a unique epoch, the appearance of Paganism in a Christian race, and the worship of form by an imagination of the North.

Among the prose writers of the Pagan renaissance, two may be singled out as characteristic, namely, Robert Burton—an ecclesiastic and university recluse who dabbled in all the sciences, was gifted with enthusiasm and spasmodically gay, but as a rule sad and morose, and according to circumstances a poet, an eccentric, a humorist, a madman, or a Puritan—and Francis Bacon, the most comprehensive, sensible, originative mind of the age; a great and luminous intellect. After more than two centuries it is still to Bacon that we go to discover the theory of what we are attempting and doing.

The Theatre

The theatre was a special product of the English Renaissance. If ever there was a living and natural work, it is here. There were already seven theatres in Shakespeare's time, so great and universal was the taste for representations. The inborn instincts of the people had not been tamed, nor muzzled, nor diminished. We hear from the stage as from the history of the times, the fierce murmur of all the passions. Not one of them was lacking. The poets who established the drama, carried in themselves the sentiments which the drama represents. Greene, Marlowe, and the rest, were ill-regulated, passionate, outrageously vehement and audacious. The drama is found in Marlowe as the plant in the seed, and Marlowe was a primitive man, the slave of his passions, the sport of his dreams. Shakespeare, Beaumont, Fletcher, Jonson, Webster, Massinger, Ford, appear close upon each other, a new and favoured generation, flourishing in the soil fertilised by the efforts of the generation which preceded them. The characters they produced were such as either excite terror by their violence, or pity by their grace. Passion ravages all around when their tragic figures are on the stage; and contrasted with them is a troop of sweet and timid figures, tender before everything, and the most loveworthy it has been given to man to depict. The men are warlike, imperious, unpolished; the women have sweetness, devotion, patience, inextinguishable affection—a thing unknown in distant lands, and in France especially. With these women love becomes almost a holy thing. They aim not at pleasure but at devotion. When a new civilisation brings a new art to light there are about a dozen men of talent who express the general idea surrounding one or two men of genius who express it thoroughly. The first constitute the chorus, the others the leaders. The leaders in this movement are Shakespeare and Ben Jonson.

Ben Jonson was a genuine Englishman, big and coarsely framed, combative, proud, often morose, prone to strain splenitic imaginations. His knowledge was vast. In an age of great scholars he is one of the best classics of his time. Other poets for the most part are visionaries; Jonson is all but a logician. Whatever he undertakes, whatever be his faults, haughtiness, rough-handling, predilection for morality and the past, he is never little or commonplace. Nearly all his work consists of comedies, not sentimental and fanciful as Shakespeare's, but satirical, written to represent and correct follies and vices. Even when he grew old his imagination remained abundant and fresh. He is the brother of Shakespeare.


Only this great age could have cradled such a child as Shakespeare. What soul! What extent of action, and what sovereignty of an unique faculty! What diverse creations, and what persistence of the same impress! Look now. Do you not see the poet behind the crowd of his creations? They have all shown somewhat of him. Ready, impetuous, impassioned, delicate, his genius is pure imagination, touched more vividly and by slighter things than ours. Hence, his style, blooming with exuberant images, loaded with exaggerated metaphors. An extraordinary species of mind, all-powerful, excessive, equally master of the sublime and the base, the most creative that ever engaged in the exact copy of the details of actual existence, in the dazzling caprice of fancy, in the profound complications of superhuman passions; a nature inspired, superior to reason, extreme in joy and pain, abrupt of gait, stormy and impetuous in its transports!

Shakespeare images with copiousness and excess; he spreads metaphors profusely over all he writes; it is a series of painting which is unfolded in his mind, picture on picture, image on image, he is forever copying the strange and splendid visions which are heaped up within him. Such an imagination must needs be vehement. Every metaphor is a convulsion. Shakespeare's style is a compound of curious impressions. He never sees things tranquilly. Like a fiery and powerful horse, he bounds but cannot run. He flies, we creep. He is obscure and original beyond all the poets of his or any other age—the most immoderate of all violaters of language, the most marvellous of all creators of souls. The critic is lost in Shakespeare as in an immense town. He can only describe a few monuments and entreat the reader to imagine the city.

The Christian Renaissance

Following the pagan came the Christian Renaissance born of the Reformation, a new birth in harmony with the genius of the Germanic peoples. It must be admitted that the Reformation entered England by a side door. It was established when Henry VIII. permitted the English Bible to be published. England had her book. Hence have sprung much of the English language and half of the English manners; to this day the country is Biblical. After the Bible the book most widely-read in England is the Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan. It is a manual of devotion for the use of simple folk. In it we hear a man of the people speaking to the people, who would render intelligible to all the terrible doctrine of damnation and salvation. Allegory is natural to Bunyan. He employs it from necessity. He only grasps truth when it is made simple by images. His work is allegorical, that it may be intelligible. Bunyan is a poet because he is a child. He has the freedom, the tone, the ease, the clearness of Homer; he is as close to Homer as an Anabaptist tinker could be to a heroic singer. He and Milton survived as the two last poets of the Reformation, oppressed and insulted, but their work continues without noise, for the ideal they raised was, after all, that which the time suggested and the race demanded.


John Milton was not one of those fevered souls whose rapture takes them by fits, and whose inquietude condemns them to paint the contradictions of passion. His mind was lucid, his imagination limited. He does not create souls but constructs arguments. Emotions and arguments are arranged beneath a unique sentiment, that of the sublime, and the broad river of lyric poetry streams from him with even flow, splendid as a cloth of gold.

Against external fluctuations he found a refuge in himself; and the ideal city which he had built in his soul endured impregnable to all assaults. He believed in the sublime with the whole force of his nature, and the whole authority of his logic. When after a generous education he returned from his travels he threw himself into the strife of the times heartily, armed with logic, indignation and learning, and protected by conviction and conscience. I have before me the formidable volume in which his prose works were collected. What a book! The chairs creak when you place it upon them. How we cannot fix our attention on the same point for a page at a time. We require manageable ideas; we have disused the big two-handed sword of our forefathers. If Michael Angelo's prophets could speak, it would be in Milton's style. Overloaded with ornaments, infinitely prolonged, these periods are triumphant choruses of angelic Alleluias sung by deep voices to the accompaniment of ten thousand harps of gold. But is he truly a prose-writer? Entangled dialectics, a heavy and awkward mind, fanatical and ferocious provincialism, the blast and temerities of implacable passion, the sublimity of religious and lyric exaltation—we do not recognize in these features a man born to explain, persuade, and prove.

As a poet Milton wrote not by impulse but like a man of letters with the assistance of books, seeing objects as much through previous writings as in themselves, adding to his images the images of others, borrowing and recasting their inventions. He made thus for himself a composite and brilliant style, less natural than that of his precursors, less fit for effusions, less akin to the lively first glow of sensation, but more solid, more regular, more capable of concentrating in one large patch of light all their sparklings and splendours. He compacted and ennobled the poets' domain.

When, however, after seventeen years of fighting and misfortune had steeped his soul in religious ideas, mythology yielded to theology, the habit of discussion subdued the lyric light. The poet no longer sings sublime verse, he harangues in grave verse, he gives us correct solemn discourses. Adam and Eve the first pair! I listen and hear two reasoners of the period—Colonel Hutchinson and his wife. Heavens! dress them at once. Folks so cultivated should have invented before all a pair of trousers and modesty. This Adam enters Paradise via England. There he learnt respectability and moral speechifying. Adam was your true pater familias with a vote, an old Oxford man, consulted at need by his wife, and dealing out to her with prudent measure the scientific explanations which she requires. The flow of dissertations never pauses. From Paradise it gets into Heaven. Milton's Jehovah is a grave king who maintains a suitable state something like Charles I. The finest thing in connection with Paradise is Hell; and in this history of God, the chief part is taken by the devil. No poetic creation equals in horror and grandeur the spectacle that greeted Satan on leaving his dungeon.

But what a heaven! One would rather enter Charles I's troops of lackeys, or Cromwell's Ironsides. What a gap between this monarchical frippery and the visions of Dante! To the poet of the Apocalypse the voice of the deity was "as the sound of many waters; and he had in his right hand seven stars; and his countenance was as the sun shining in his strength; and when I saw him I fell at his feet as dead." When Milton arranged his celestial show, he did not fall at his feet as dead.

When we take in, in one view, the vast literary region of England, extending from the restoration of the Stuarts to the French Revolution, we perceive that all the productions bear a classical impress, such as is met with neither in the preceding nor in the succeeding time. This classical art finds its centre in the labours of Pope, and above all in Pope, whose favourite author is Dryden, of all English poets the least inspired and the most classical. Pope gave himself up to versification. He did not write because he thought, but he thought in order to write. I wish I could admire his works of imagination, but I cannot. I know the machinery. There is, however, a poet in Pope, and to discover him we have only to read him in fragments. Each verse in Pope is a masterpiece if taken alone. There is a classical architecture of ideas, and of all the masters who have practised it in England Pope is the most skilled.

The Modern Spirit

The spirit of the modern revolution broke out first in a Scotch peasant, Robert Burns. Scarcely ever was seen together more of misery and talent. Burns cries out in favour of instinct and joy. Love was his main business. In him for the first time a poet spoke as men speak, or, rather, as they think, without premeditation, with a mixture of all styles. Burns was much in advance of his age, and the life of men in advance of their age is not wholesome. He died worn out at 37. In him old narrow moralities give place to the wide sympathy of the modern man.

Now appeared the English romantic school. Among the multitude of its writers we may distinguish Southey, a clever man, a producer of decorative poems to suit the fashion; Coleridge, a poor fellow who had steeped himself in mystical theories; Thomas More, a witty railer; and Walter Scott, the favourite of his age, who was read over the whole of Europe, was almost equal to Shakespeare, had more popularity than Voltaire, earned about £200,000, and taught us all history. Scott gave to Scotland a citizenship of literature. Scott loves men from the bottom of his heart. By his fundamental honesty and wide humanity he was the Homer of modern life.

When the philosophical spirit passed from Germany to England, transformed itself and became Anglican, deformed itself and became revolutionary, it produced a Wordsworth, a Byron, a Shelley. Wordsworth, a new Cowper, with less talent and more ideas, was essentially an interior man, engrossed by the concerns of the soul. To such men life becomes a grave business on which we must incessantly and scrupulously reflect. Wordsworth was a wise and happy man, a thinker and dreamer, who read and walked and listened in deep calm to his own thoughts. The peace was so great within him and around him that he could perceive the imperceptible. He saw grandeur and beauty in the trivial events which weave the woof of our most commonplace days. His "Excursion" is like a Protestant temple—august though bare and monstrous.

Shelley, one of the greatest poets of the age, beautiful as an angel, of extraordinary precocity, sweet, generous, tender, overflowing with gifts of heart, mind, birth, and fortune, marred his life by introducing into his conduct the enthusiastic imagination he should have kept for his verse. His world is beyond our own. We move in it between heaven and earth, in abstraction, dreamland, symbolism. Shelley loved desert and solitary places, where man enjoys the pleasure of believing infinite what he sees—infinite as his soul. Verily there is a soul in everything; in the universe is a soul; even beyond the sensible form shines a secret essence and something divine which we catch sight of by sublime illuminations, never reaching or penetrating it. The poets hear the great heart of nature beat; they would reach it. One alone, Byron, succeeds.

I have reserved for the last the greatest and most English artist, from whom we may learn more truths of his country and of his age than from all the rest. All styles appear dull, and all souls sluggish by the side of Byron's. No such great poet has had so narrow an imagination. They are his own sorrows, his own revolts, his own travels, which, hardly transformed and modified, he introduces into his verses. He never could make a poem save of his own heart. If Goethe was the poet of the universe, Byron was the poet of the individual; and if the German genius found its interpretation in the one, the English genius found its interpretation in the other.