CHAPTER IX. INTELLECTUAL AND SPIRITUAL PROGRESS.
"Man doth not live by bread alone." The enormous material progress of this country during the last sixty years - imperfectly indicated by the fact that during the last forty years the taxable income of the United Kingdom has been considerably more than doubled - would be but a barren theme of rejoicing, if there were signs among us of intellectual or spiritual degeneracy. The great periods of English history have been always fruitful in great thinkers and great writers, in religious and mental activity. Endeavouring to judge our own period by this standard, and making a swift survey of its achievements in literature, we do not find it apparently inferior to the splendours of "great Elizabeth" or of the Augustan age of Anne. Our fifth Queen-regnant, whose reign, longer than that of any of her four predecessors, is also happier than that of the greatest among them, can reckon among her subjects an even larger number of men eminent in all departments of knowledge, though perhaps we cannot boast one name quite equal to Newton in science, and though assuredly neither this nor any modern nation has yet a second imaginative writer whose throne may be set beside that of Shakespeare.
We excel in quantity, indeed; for while, owing to the spread of education, the number of readers has been greatly increased, the number of writers has risen proportionately; the activity of the press has increased tenfold. Journalism has become a far more formidable power in the land than in the earlier years when, as our domestic annals plainly indicate, the Times ruled as the Napoleon of newspapers. This result is largely due to the removal of the duties formerly imposed both on the journals themselves and on their essential paper material; and it would indeed "dizzy the arithmetic of memory" should we try to enumerate the varied periodicals that are far younger than Her Majesty's happy reign. Of these a great number are excellent in both intention and execution, and must be numbered among the educating, civilising, Christianising agencies of the day. They are something more and higher than the "savoury literary entremets" designed to please the fastidious taste of a cultured and leisured class, which was the just description of our periodical literature at large not so very long ago. The number of our imaginative writers - poets and romancers, but especially the latter - has been out of all proportion great. We give the place of honour, as is their due, to the singers rather than to the story-tellers, the more readily since the popular taste, it cannot be denied, chooses its favourites in inverse order as a rule.
When Her Majesty ascended the throne, one brilliant poetical constellation was setting slowly, star by star. Keats and Shelley and Byron, none of them much older than the century, had perished in their early prime between 1820 and 1824; Scott had sunk under the storms of fortune in 1832; the fitful glimmer of Coleridge's genius vanished in 1834, and a year later "the gentle Elia" too was gone. Southey, who still held the laureate-ship in 1837, had faded out of life in 1843, and was succeeded in his once-despised office by William Wordsworth, who, with Rogers and Leigh Hunt and Moore, lived far into the new reign, uniting the Georgian and the Victorian school of writers. Thomas Hood, the poet of the poor and oppressed, whose too short life ended in 1845, gives in his serious verse such thrilling expression to the impassioned, indignant philanthropy, which has actuated many workers and writers of our own period, that it is not easy to reckon him with the older group. His song rings like that of Charles Kingsley, poet, novelist, preacher, and "Christian socialist," who did not publish his "Saint's Tragedy" till three years after Hood was dead.
There has, indeed, been no break in the continuity of our great literary history; while one splendid group was setting, another as illustrious was rising. Tennyson, who on Wordsworth's death in 1850 received at Queen Victoria's hand the "laurel greener from the brows of him that uttered nothing base," had published his earliest two volumes of poems some years before Her Majesty's accession; and of that rare poetic pair, the Brownings, each had already given evidence of the great powers they possessed, Robert Browning's tragedy of "Strafford" being produced on the stage in 1837, while his future wife's translation of the "Prometheus Bound" saw the light four years earlier. The Victorian period can boast no greater poetic names than these, each of which is held in highest reverence by its own special admirers. The patriotic fervour with which Lord Tennyson has done almost all his laureate work, the lucid splendour of his style, the perfect music of his rhythm, and the stinging sharpness with which he has sometimes chastised contemporary sins, have all combined to win for him a far wider popularity than even that accorded to the fine lyrical passion of Mrs. Browning, or to the deep-thoughted and splendid, but often perplexing and ruggedly phrased, dramatic and lyric utterances of her husband. All three have honoured themselves and their country by a majestic purity of moral and religious teaching - an excellence shared by many of their contemporaries, whose powers would have won them a first place in an age and country less fruitful of genius; but not so conspicuous in some younger poets, later heirs of fame, whose lot it may be to carry on the traditions of Victorian greatness into another reign.