1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Godwin

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:560-62.



WILLIAM GODWIN, author of Caleb Williams, was one of the most remarkable men of his times. The boldness of his speculations and opinions, and his apparent depth and ardour of feeling, were curiously contrasted with his plodding habits, his imperturbable temper, and the quiet obscure simplicity of his life and manners. The most startling and astounding theories were propounded by him with undoubting confidence; and sentiments that, if reduced to action, would have overturned the whole framework of society, were complacently dealt out by their author as if they had merely formed an ordinary portion of a busy literary life. Godwin was born at Wisbeach, in Cambridgeshire, on the 3d of March 1756. His father was a dissenting minister — a pious nonconformist — and thus the future novelist may be said to have been nurtured in a love of religious and civil liberty, without perhaps much reverence for existing authority. He soon, however, far overstepped the pale of dissent. After receiving the necessary education at the dissenting college at Hoxton, Mr. Godwin became minister of a congregation in the vicinity of London. He also officiated for some time at Stowmarket, in Suffolk. About the year 1782, having been five years a nonconformist preacher, he settled in London, and applied himself wholly to literature. His first work was entitled Sketches of History, in Six Sermons; and he shortly afterwards became principal writer in the New Annual Register. He was a zealous political reformer; and his talents were so well known or recommended, that he obtained the large sum of £700 for his next publication. This was his famed Enquiry concerning Political Justice, and its Influences on General Virtue and Happiness, published in 1793. Mr. Godwin's work was a sincere advocacy of an intellectual republic — a splendid argument for universal philanthropy and benevolence, and for the omnipotence of mind over matter. His views of the perfectibility of man and the regeneration of society (all private affections and interests being merged in the public good) were clouded by no misgivings, and he wrote with the force of conviction, and with no ordinary powers of persuasion and eloquence. The Enquiry was highly successful, and went through several editions. In a twelvemonth afterwards appeared his novel of Things as they Are, or the Adventures of Caleb Williams. His object here was also to inculcate his peculiar doctrines, and to comprehend "a general review of the modes of domestic and unrecorded despotism, by which man becomes the destroyer of man." His hero, Williams, tells his own tale of suffering and of wrong — of innocence persecuted and reduced to the brink of death and infamy by aristocratic power, and by tyrannical or partially-administered laws; but his story is so fraught with interest and energy, that we lose sight of the political object or satire, and think only of the characters and incidents that pass in review before us. The imagination of the author overpowered his philosophy; he was a greater inventor than logician. His character of Falkland is one of the finest in the whole range of English fictitious composition. The opinions of Godwin were soon brought still more prominently forward. His friends, Holcroft, Thelwall, Horne Tooke, and others, were thrown into the Tower on a charge of high treason. The novelist had joined none of their societies, and however obnoxious to those in power, had not rendered himself amenable to the laws of his country. Godwin, however, was ready with his pen. Judge Eyre, in his charge to the grand jury, had laid down principles very different from those of our author, and the latter instantly published Cursory Strictures on the judge's charge, so ably written that the pamphlet is said to have mainly led to the acquittal of the accused parties. In 1796 Mr. Godwin issued a series of essays on education, manners, and literature, entitled The Enquirer. In the following year he married Mary Wollstonecraft, author of The Vindication of the Rights of Woman, &c. a lady in many, respects as remarkable as her husband, and who died after having given birth to a daughter (Mrs. Shelley) still more justly distinguished. Godwin's contempt of the ordinary modes of thinking and acting in this country was displayed by this marriage. His wife brought with her a natural daughter, the fruit of a former connexion. She had lived with Godwin for some time before their marriage; and "the principal motive," he says, "for complying with the ceremony, was the circumstance of Mary's being in a state of pregnancy." Such an open disregard of the ties and principles that sweeten life and adorn society astonished even Godwin's philosophic and reforming friends. But whether acting in good or in bad taste, he seems always to have been fearless and sincere. He wrote Memoirs of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (who died in about half a year after her marriage), and in this curious work all the details of her life and conduct are minutely related. We are glad, after this mental pollution, to meet Godwin again as a novelist—

He bears no token of the sabler streams,
And mounts far off among the swans of Thames.

In 1799 appeared his St. Leon, a story of the "miraculous class," as he himself states, and designed to mix human feelings and passions with incredible situations. His hero attains the possession of the philosopher's stone, and secures exhaustless wealth by the art of transmuting metals into gold, and at the same time he learns the secret of the elixir vitae, by which he has the power of renewing his youth. These are, indeed, "incredible situations;" but the romance has many attractions — splendid description and true pathos. Its chief defect is an excess of the terrible and marvellous. In 1800 Mr. Godwin produced his unlucky tragedy of Antonio; in 1801 Thoughts on Dr. Parr's Spital Sermon, being a reply to some attacks made upon him, or rather on his code of morality, by Parr, Mackintosh, and others. In 1803 he brought out a voluminous Life of Chaucer, in two quarto volumes. With Mr. Godwin the great business of this world was to write books, and whatever subject he selected, he treated it with a due sense of its importance, and pursued it into all its ramifications with intense ardour and application. The Life of Chaucer was ridiculed by Sir Walter Scott in the Edinburgh Review, in consequence of its enormous bulk and its extraneous dissertations, but it is creditable to the author's taste and research. The student of our early literature will find in it many interesting facts connected with a chivalrous and romantic period of our history — much sound criticism, and a fine relish for true poetry. In 1804 Mr. Godwin produced his novel of Fleetwood, or the New Man of Feeling. The title was unfortunate, as reminding the reader of the old Man of Feeling, by far the most interesting and amiable of thus two. Mr. Godwin's hero is self-willed and capricious, a morbid egotist, whose irritability and frantic outbursts of passion move contempt rather than sympathy. Byron has said—

Romances paint at full length people's wooings,
But only give a bust of marriages.

This cannot be said of Mr. Godwin. Great part of Fleetwood is occupied with the hero's matrimonial troubles and afflictions; but they only exemplify the noble poet's farther observation — "no one cares for matrimonial cooings." The better parts of the novel consist of the episode of the Macneills, a tale of family pathos, and some detached descriptions of Welsh scenery. For some years Mr. Godwin was little heard of. He had married again, and, as a more certain means of maintenance, had opened a bookseller's shop in London, under the assumed name of "Edward Baldwin." In this situation he ushered forth a number of children's books, small histories and other compilations, some of them by himself. Charles Lamb mentions an English Grammar, in which Hazlitt assisted. He tried another tragedy, Faulkner, in 1807, but it was unsuccessful. Next year he published an Essay on Sepulchres, written in a fine meditative spirit, with great beauty of expression; and in 1815 Lives of Edward and John Phillips, the nephews of Milton. The latter is also creditable to the taste and research of the author, and illustrates our poetical history about the time of the Restoration. In 1817 Mr. Godwin again entered the arena of fiction. He had paid a visit to Scotland, and concluded with Constable for another novel, Mandeville, a tale of the times of Cromwell. The style of this work is measured and stately, and it abounds in that moral anatomy in which the author delighted, but often carried beyond truth and nature. The vindictive feelings delineated in Mandeville are pushed to a revolting extreme. Passages of energetic and beautiful composition — reflective and descriptive — are to be found in the novel; and we may remark, that as the author advanced in years, he seems to have cultivated more sedulously the graces of language and diction. The staple of his novels, however, was taken from the depths of his own mind — not from extensive surveys of mankind or the universe; and it was obvious that the oft-drawn-upon fountain began to dry up, notwithstanding the luxuriance of the foliage that shaded it. We next find Mr. Godwin combating the opinions of Malthus upon population (1820), and then setting about an elaborate History of the Commonwealth. The great men of that era were exactly suited to his taste. Their resolute energy of character, their overthrow of the monarchy, their republican enthusiasm and strange notions of faith and the saints, were well adapted to fire his imagination and stimulate his research. The history extended to four large volumes, which were published at intervals between 1824 and 1828. It is evident that Mr. Godwin tasked himself to produce authorities for all he advanced. He took up, as might be expected, strong opinions; but in striving to be accurate and minute, he became too specific and chronological for the interest of his narrative. It was truly said that the style of his history "creeps and hitches in dates and authorities." In 1830 Mr. Godwin published Cloudesley, a tale, in three volumes. Reverting to his first brilliant performance as a novelist, he made his new hero, like Caleb Williams, a person of humble origin, and he arrays him against his patron; but there the parallel ends. The elastic vigour, the verisimilitude, the crowding incidents, the absorbing interest, and the overwhelming catastrophe of the first novel, are not to be found in Cloudesley. There is even little delineation of character. Instead of these we have fine English, "clouds of reflections without any new occasion to call them forth; an expanded flow of words without a single pointed remark." The next production of this veteran author was a metaphysical treatise, Thoughts on Man, &c.; and his last work (1831) a compilation, entitled Lives of the Necromancers. In his later years Mr. Godwin enjoyed a small government office, yeoman usher of the Exchequer, which was conferred upon him by Earl Grey's ministry. In the residence attached to this appointment., in New Palace Yard, he terminated his long and laborious scholastic life on the 7th of April 1836. No man ever panted more ardently, or toiled more heroically, for literary fame; and we think that, before he closed his eyes, he must have been conscious that he had "left something so written to after-times, as they should not willingly let it die."