Pagina-afbeeldingen
PDF
ePub

INTRODUCTION

Purpose of the

Spectator

IN the thirty-fourth number of The Spectator the members of the little club to which Sir Roger de Coverley belongs are discussing the policy of the paper, already in the second month of its existence and already well known to some thousands of readers in London. The didactic purpose of the little sheet is avowed with pleasing delicacy and engaging frankness. The clergyman of the club "proceeded to take notice of the great use this paper might be of to the public, by reprehending those vices. which are too trivial for the chastisement of the law, and too fantastical for the cognizance of the pulpit." The Spectator in his own character adds: "Having thus taken my resolution to march on boldly in the cause of virtue and good sense, and to annoy their adversaries in whatever degree or rank of men they may be found, I shall be deaf in the future to all the remonstrances that shall be made to me on this account. If I meet with anything in city, court, or country that shocks modesty or good manners, I shall use my utmost endeavors to make an example of it. I must, however, entreat every particular person who does me the honor to be a reader of this paper, never to think himself, or any of his friends or enemies, aimed at in what is said. For I promise him never to draw a faulty character which does not fit at least a thousand people, or to publish a

...

single paper that is not written in the spirit of benevolence and with a love to mankind.”

To this general policy The Spectator held, varying it only by the censure of graver vices than those here contemplated and by papers of a purely speculative or æsthetic nature.

Such a paper would probably have had a mission at any time in English history. But that it could so openly avow its didactic purpose, so steadily and in so direct a manner adhere to that purpose, and yet achieve so great moral, social, and financial success as did The Spectator, are matters of special wonder. The explanation is to be sought not merely in the character of the paper, but also in the political, intellectual, and social conditions of the age. No period of English history is more interesting or better known. The fullest details of the life and thought of the time of Queen Anne are accessible to the student. Many interesting chapters have been written upon its amusements and its fashions, upon its philosophy, its religion, its literature, and its politics. But it can not be understood without a preliminary glance at the interval between 1640 and 1710.

Charles I and the Protectorate

The political life of England had, for sixty years before the accession of Queen Anne, been full of stirring events. Charles I had been tried and beheaded for treacherous and contumelious disregard of the hereditary and constitutional rights of Englishmen. Cromwell had given in the Protectorate a government just and stable, because administered by a man of singular force and probity. The power passed in 1658 to his mediocre son, who was deposed in a few months by the Puritan army. The dissensions in the army on the one hand, and on the other hand the widespread feeling among Englishmen of all classes that a limited monarchy was, after all, the only

fitting type of government for England, led to the recall and enthronement in 1660 of Charles II.

The Puritan

Though Cromwell's rule had been just and firm, the presence of his powerful standing army was felt to be a constant menace to liberty. The temper and manners of the Puritans, moreover, had never been congenial to the great body of Englishmen supremacy either of the rank and file or of the nobility. Under their rule there had been the most intolerable religious and social persecution. Theaters, fairs, and all places of amusement had been closed. Even Christmas -the "Merrie Christmas" of old England-had been made, under severe penalty, a day of fasting and prayer. All churches were compelled to conform to Puritan methods of worship. The Puritans themselves, "lankhaired, long-visaged," and plainly dressed, given to canting scriptural phrases in nasal tones, uncharitable and inflexible, were not pleasing or lovable. When they came into the civil power they were joined by unscrupulous men who, as a means to promotion, imitated the outward uglinesses of the Puritans and indulged themselves in secret in the worst vices. Hence the Puritans as a body came to be hated, not only for intolerant zeal, but for intolerable hypocrisy. Nor were their enemies unprepared for this attitude toward them. Since the time of Shakspere* and Spenser † they had been a mark for ridicule and censure.

It was not surprising, therefore, that, with the restoration to the throne of a monarch like Charles II, who was without principles, and without shame, and who, bringing with him the worst vices of the French, soon gathered around him the most profligate court that England had ever seen, the example of the king and

*See Measure for Measure and Twelfth Night.
† See The Faerie Queene.

Reaction in tastes and morals under Charles II

court was contagious. "Everybody hastened to indemnify himself by licentiousness and immorality for years of mortification." The upper classes speedily became frivolous and corrupt. The evil spread even to the middle and lower ranks of society. It became the fashion to insult, by word and action, all things hitherto held sacred in English life and tradition. Politics became as corrupt as manners. Charles and his courtiers had no conception of civic duty or civic honesty. Positions were sold or given to corrupt favorites of the king; wealth and honor rewarded dishonorable services. The church and the clergy sank to a lower level than at any time since the fourteenth century.

That the privileged classes of a nation with qualities so steady and sterling should so suddenly and completely let go their best ideals was indeed strange. But we must remember the violence of the feeling that reacted against the Puritans, their sense of relief from the disbanding of Cromwell's mighty army, the traditional fondness of Englishmen for amusements, their deepseated, hereditary conviction that a king was the only rightful ruler of the nation. Their moral standards and their refinement, moreover, were not, either under Cromwell or before his time, equal to those of the nineteenth century.

Promptly upon the Restoration came the reopening of the theaters. These were made the organs of the court, and accurately reflected its politics The theaters and its morals. They were a sad falling off from the theater of Shakspere's day. A group of writers at once appeared ready to please the fashionable taste. The plays of Wycherley, Congreve, Farquhar, and Cibber, alike foolish and licentious, have as their only apology a certain cleverness, and an unreality that

renders them now comparatively harmless. Even Dryden, great master mind as he was, did not disdain to pander to the depraved tastes of the Restoration.

The Revolution of 1688

William

With the accession of James II in 1685 affairs grew worse and better: worse, in that James did nothing to elevate the standards of taste and morals, and more obstinately than his brother persisted in wresting from his subjects their constitutional rights; better, in that his weakness and lack of tact soon led to his abdication and to the installation of William and Mary by the bloodless Revolution of 1688. In the fourteen years of William's reign the sphere of English politics and political interest was considerably enlarged by complications with the Continent. Under his wise statesmanship, and Mary; parliamentary and through the victorious campaigns of government Marlborough, was formed the famous Grand Alliance, by which the Protestant nations, England, Holland, and Germany, were united against the encroachments of the Catholic countries of southern Europe. The long struggle between Parliament and the Crown. was practically over. William sought to govern only by authority of Parliament. The monarch no longer stood alienated from the confidence of the people. Party spirit and party prejudice there undoubtedly were; but not, as before, involving the question of the right of the reigning monarch to his seat, or of the subjects to their constitutional privileges. The direct results of the vigorous foreign policy of William and of the restitution of parliamentary authority was to institute party government and to arouse in all classes a greater interest in politics. This period is marked, too, by a temper somewhat more serious, a range of interests somewhat wider, a freedom of thought somewhat greater, than had existed for fifty years.

« VorigeDoorgaan »