Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Literary Fashions.

There is such a thing as Literary Fashion, and prose and verse have been regulated by the same caprice that cuts our coats and cocks our hats. Dr. Kippis, who had a taste for literary history, has observed that “‘Dodsley’s Oeconomy of Human Life’ long received the most extravagant applause, from the supposition that it was written by a celebrated nobleman; an instance of the power of Literary Fashion; the history of which, as it hath appeared in various ages and countries, and as it hath operated with respect to the different objects of science, learning, art, and taste, would form a work that might be highly instructive and entertaining.”

The favourable reception of Dodsley’s “Oeconomy of Human Life,” produced a whole family of oeconomies; it was soon followed by a second part, the gratuitous ingenuity of one of those officious imitators, whom an original author never cares to thank. Other oeconomies trod on the heels of each other.

For some memoranda towards a history of literary fashions, the following may be arranged:—

At the restoration of letters in Europe, commentators and compilers were at the head of the literati; translators followed, who enriched themselves with their spoils on the commentators. When in the progress of modern literature, writers aimed to rival the great authors of antiquity, the different styles, in their servile imitations, clashed together; and parties were formed who fought desperately for the style they chose to adopt. The public were long harassed by a fantastic race, who called themselves Ciceronian, of whom are recorded many ridiculous practices, to strain out the words of Cicero into their hollow verbosities. They were routed by the facetious Erasmus. Then followed the brilliant æra of epigrammatic points; and good sense, and good taste, were nothing without the spurious ornaments of false wit. Another age was deluged by a million of sonnets; and volumes were for a long time read, without their readers being aware that their patience was exhausted. There was an age of epics, which probably can never return again; for after two or three, the rest can be but repetitions with a few variations.

In Italy, from 1530 to 1580, a vast multitude of books were written on Love; the fashion of writing on that subject (for certainly it was not always a passion with the indefatigable writer) was an epidemical distemper. They wrote like pedants, and pagans; those who could not write their love in verse, diffused themselves in prose. When the Poliphilus of Colonna appeared, which is given in the form of a dream, this dream made a great many dreamers, as it happens in company (says the sarcastic Zeno) when one yawner makes many yawn. When Bishop Hall first published his satires, he called them “Toothless Satires,” but his latter ones he distinguished as “Biting Satires;” many good-natured men, who could only write good-natured verse, crowded in his footsteps, and the abundance of their labours only showed that even the “toothless” satires of Hall could bite more sharply than those of servile imitators. After Spenser’s “Faerie Queen” was published, the press overflowed with many mistaken imitations, in which fairies were the chief actors — this circumstance is humorously animadverted on by Marston, in his satires, as quoted by Warton: every scribe now falls asleep, and in his

—— dreams, straight tenne pound to one

Outsteps some fairy ——

Awakes, straiet rubs his eyes, and PRINTS HIS TALE.

The great personage who gave a fashion to this class of literature was the courtly and romantic Elizabeth herself; her obsequious wits and courtiers would not fail to feed and flatter her taste. Whether they all felt the beauties, or languished over the tediousness of “The Faerie Queen,” and the “Arcadia” of Sidney, at least her majesty gave a vogue to such sentimental and refined romance. The classical Elizabeth introduced another literary fashion; having translated the Hercules Oetacus, she made it fashionable to translate Greek tragedies. There was a time, in the age of fanaticism, and the Long Parliament, that books were considered the more valuable for their length. The seventeenth century was the age of folios. Caryl wrote a “Commentary on Job” in two volumes folio, of above one thousand two hundred sheets! as it was intended to inculcate the virtue of patience, these volumes gave at once the theory and the practice. One is astonished at the multitude of the divines of this age; whose works now lie buried under the brick and mortar tombs of four or five folios, which, on a moderate calculation, might now be “wire-woven” into thirty or forty modern octavos.

In Charles I.’s time, love and honour were heightened by the wits into florid romance; but Lord Goring turned all into ridicule; and he was followed by the Duke of Buckingham, whose happy vein of ridicule was favoured by Charles II., who gave it the vogue it obtained.

Sir William Temple justly observes, that changes in veins of wit are like those of habits, or other modes. On the return of Charles II., none were more out of fashion among the new courtiers than the old Earl of Norwich, who was esteemed the greatest wit, in his father’s time, among the old.

Modern times have abounded with what may be called fashionable literature. Tragedies were some years ago as fashionable as comedies are at this day;1 Thomson, Mallet, Francis, Hill, applied their genius to a department in which they lost it all. Declamation and rant, and over-refined language, were preferred to the fable, the manners, and to nature — and these now sleep on our shelves! Then too we had a family of paupers in the parish of poetry, in “Imitations of Spenser.” Not many years ago, Churchill was the occasion of deluging the town with political poems in quarto. — These again were succeeded by narrative poems, in the ballad measure, from all sizes of poets. — The Castle of Otranto was the father of that marvellous, which once over-stocked the circulating library and closed with Mrs. Radcliffe. — Lord Byron has been the father of hundreds of graceless sons! — Travels and voyages have long been a class of literature so fashionable, that we begin to prepare for, or to dread, the arrival of certain persons from the Continent!

Different times, then, are regulated by different tastes. What makes a strong impression on the public at one time, ceases to interest it at another; an author who sacrifices to the prevailing humours of his day has but little chance of being esteemed by posterity; and every age of modern literature might, perhaps, admit of a new classification, by dividing it into its periods of fashionable literature.

1 The great feature of the modern stage within the last twenty years has been the Classical Burlesque Drama, which, though originating in the last century in such plays as Midas, really reached its culmination under the auspices of Madame Vestris.

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