A Critical History of English Poetry

By Herbert J. C. Grierson; J. C. Smith | Go to book overview

Chapter Seventeen
THOMSON TO COWPER

WITH the death of Queen Anne and the advent of the Hanoverians and the dominance of the Whig party under Walpole, who came into power with the collapse of the South Sea Bubble, ended the period of the dignified patronage of letters, and with it gradually came the end of the witty literature addressed to the town. Walpole's economical mind found the expense too great for the return. He preferred simpler and surer methods of corrupting politicians and the Press. The result for our literature is interesting to consider. It meant the loss of a definitely conceived, if limited, audience such as Steele and Addison, Swift and Pope wrote for. Men of letters were thrown back on the booksellers to take the place of patrons. It was to Cave that Johnson made his first appeal, to Cave Gentleman's Magazine that he made his first contributions. Griffiths and the Monthly Review were Goldsmith's first haven. Hackwork such as translation became a necessary portion of a struggling author's labours. Johnson's great achievement was a Dictionary of the English Language; Goldsmith compiled grammars and histories; biographies and anthologies; and even wrote on Natural History. What, leaving such tasks aside, would determine an author's choice of a subject and the manner of treating it? Necessarily he would be in some measure guided by what had been, and still was, in vogue. The Tatler and the Spectator had made the periodical essay-paper a fashion which prevailed till almost the end of the century: Johnson Rambler and Idler, Goldsmith Citizen of the World, the Adventurer of Hawkesworth, to which Johnson contributed, are only a few. But the important thing to note is the change of tone. Johnson does not write for the town, the fashionable world. He conceives of his audience as mainly people like himself. The wit and sparkle of the earlier essayists, a reflection of the tone and manners of the circle in which the writers lived, is gone, its place taken by the weightier moral tone of the teacher or

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