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.
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 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
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
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
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.