FOUR centuries of English life and letters furnish themes for a quartet of recent university press publications. Puritanism, neoclassicism, romanticism, and Victorian liberalism — these are the topics treated, but in each case it is an individual figure or special period that comes under review.
Puritanism has always interested the political and intellectual historian, and it has recently become the province of the economic and social historian as well. Following Weber’s brilliant essay on The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, the relations between Puritanism and parallel social and economic movements have been constantly reëxamined. With this question Professor M. M. Knappen’sTudor Puritanism (University of Chicago Press, $4.00) is perhaps too little concerned, though admittedly limited to the sixteenth century, when ’Puritan economic doctrine was still based on the social teachings of the scholastics.’ There are logical reasons for a study of this earlier period, and Professor Knappen has done a thorough and scholarly job. Early Puritanism no longer seems obscure; neither does it seem particularly significant. From the topical chapters one learns that Tudor Puritanism contributed little to theology or political thought; that its social and economic outlook was still essentially mediæval; and that, while it did make some contribution in the intellectual field, with its emphasis on an educated clergy, it is easy to exaggerate the liberalism of its educational philosophy.
Qualitatively, the chief significance of Puritanism seems to have been the spiritual strength it lent its followers long before their social and economic outlook acquired its typical seventeenth-century cast. Quantitatively, Professor Knappen’s detailed narrative of Puritan tactics brings out the weakness of the movement, which suffered constant serious defections to the insular Anglicanism which the Tudors successfully fostered as an equipoise.
It is a far cry from Puritanism to Alexander Pope. To the nineteenth century, Pope symbolized the artificiality, the deadly ’correctness’ of the Augustan Age; but the present trend is apparently in the opposite direction. Professor Robert Kilburn Root, at any rate, is definitely sympathetic. His Poetical Career of Alexander Pope (Princeton University Press, $2.75), which is not a biography, but a series of essays. brings out particularly Pope’s virtues: his consummate mastery of the heroic couplet, and that nice balance between ’Judgment’ and ‘Wit.’ Certainly the Essay on Criticism is remarkable for concise and epigrammatic language; and The Rape of the Lock is a masterpiece, with its delightful fancy and flair for the mock-heroic. The translation of Homer needs more defense. It is unfortunate that Pope yielded to what he himself termed ’the chimerical insolent hope of raising and improving’ the original. Professor Root would make Pope a giant, but assuredly his limitations were serious. Of true lyric feeling there is almost nothing in Pope. An Augustan, he wrote for an aristocracy. His wit, his classic reasonableness, his flawless technique, were for the narrow world of the coffeehouses; and he still appeals to the intellect rather than to the emotions.
William Shenstone is noteworthy, if at all, for his connection with the early revolt against Pope and neoclassicism. Critics have found evidences, in his letters and verse, of that appreciation of Nature, that liking for simple homely things, that mark the precursor of the Romantic Revolt. With interest in Shenstone apparently growing, Duncan Mallam’sLetters of William Shenstone (University of Minnesota Press, $7.50) will doubtless find a welcome. Incidentally a hundred new letters are printed, as well as the two hundred previously published. Their merit seems very unequal. Artificial and excessively deferent, those to Lady Luxborough are overloaded with gossip and copious bulletins of the poet’s health. Far better are the letters to male friends. Here everyday affairs are occasionally recounted with naturalness and feeling, while the account of his brother’s death is moving and sincere. Aside from particular literary references, the letters give some idea of the life of an eighteenth-century country gentleman, who was also a literary recluse. They justify Shenstone his place among the early Romantics if only for their pervasive melancholy, a hallmark of the ‘Churchyard Poets.;
While Romanticism still wins approval, Victorian liberalism has forfeited our respect. Most readers of Richmond Croom Beatty’sLord Macaulay: Victorian Liberal (University of Oklahoma Press, $3.00) will take the subtitle as a term of reproach; and Macaulay’s latest biographer is unsympathetic, though not unfair. His aim, and a noble one, is to supply an integrated and convincing background for his hero; but the complex England of Victoria is not easy to portray. Macaulay’s Liberal creed is shown up for what it was: a complacent belief in material progress, in the divine right of property, and the historic mission of the middle class. So too Macaulay’s own shortcomings receive their full share of blame. Opinionated and cocksure, a partisan advocate and a vindictive critic, Macaulay rarely gave quarter and has seldom received it. Mr. Beatty, one feels, has been tempted to hit back; and Macaulay gets perhaps too little credit for his real merits as statesman and author. After all, the superb narrative and powerful imagination that still win readers for his History were not Macaulay’s only gifts to posterity, which still couples his name with the Indian Civil Service and educational reform.