English Literature, Considered as an Interpreter of English History eBook

Henry Coppée
This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 540 pages of information about English Literature, Considered as an Interpreter of English History.

At last the end came.  While a young man, he had suffered from a painful attack of vertigo, brought on by a surfeit of fruit; “eating,” he says, in a letter to Mrs. Howard, “an hundred golden pippins at a time.”  This had occasioned a deafness; and both giddiness and deafness had recurred at intervals, and at last manifestly affected his mind.  Once, when walking with some friends, he had pointed to an elm-tree, blasted by lightning, and had said, “I shall be like that tree:  I shall die first at the top.”  And thus at last the doom fell.  Struck on the brain, he lingered for nine years in that valley of spectral horrors, of whose only gates idiocy and madness are the hideous wardens.  From this bondage he was released by death on the 19th of October, 1745.

Many have called it a fearful retribution for his sins, and especially for his treatment of Stella and Vanessa.  A far more reasonable and charitable verdict is that the evil in his conduct through life had its origin in congenital disorder; and in his days of apparent sanity, the character of his eccentric actions is to be palliated, if not entirely excused, on the plea of insanity.  Additional force is given to this judgment by the fact that, when he died, it was found that he had left his money to found a hospital for the insane, illustrating the line,—­

    A fellow-feeling makes us wondrous kind.

In that day of great classical scholars, Swift will hardly rank among the most profound; but he possessed a creative power, a ready and versatile fancy, a clear and pleasing but plain style.  He has been unjustly accused by Lady Montagu of having stolen plot and humor from Cervantes and Rabelais:  he drew from the same source as they; and those suggestions which came to him from them owe all their merit to his application of them.  As a critic, he was heartless and rude; but as a polemic and a delineator of his age, he stands prominently forth as an historian, whose works alone would make us familiar with the period.


Sir William Temple, 1628-1698:  he was a statesman and a political writer; rather a man of mark in his own day than of special interest to the present time.  After having been engaged in several important diplomatic affairs, he retired to his seat of Moor Park, and employed himself in study and with his pen.  His Essays and Observations on Government are valuable as a clue to the history.  In his controversy with Bentley on the Epistles of Phalaris, and the relative merits of ancient and modern authors, he was overmatched in scholarship.  In a literary point of view, Temple deserves praise for the ease and beauty of his style.  Dr. Johnson says he “was the first writer who gave cadence to English prose.”  “What can be more pleasant,” says Charles Lamb, “than the way in which the retired statesman peeps out in his essays, penned in his delightful retreat at Shene?” He is perhaps better known in literary history as the early patron of Swift, than for his own works.

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