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our history. But the other party were at least given the opportunity, to show how little they were to be depended upon, to stem the rising flood of materialism, and a Walpole was possibly less capable of harm than a Bolingbroke.
THE PROSE AGE
HE tendency towards a coarse and material outlook upon life, which is the mark of a Prose Age, was, we have seen, only checked, and not diverted, by the triumphs of Marlborough, and the heroic steadfastness of William of Orange. The war with France had not stirred England to its depths, and after the threat of invasion had been dispelled at La Hogue, the spirit of faction had become almost as powerful as that of patriotism.
Following the ignoble Peace of Utrecht came the accession of a German king and a long peace. Thus it comes about, that the early part of the eighteenth century is a depressing chapter in our history, for it is the darkest period of our Prose Age. There is little noble or inspiring in either politics, or literature, or society. Positive Science, the special accomplishment of a prose age, does certainly flourish. But beyond that, the outlook is dismal. Corruption and venality ruled our politics, with a thoroughness worthy of a later age; fashionable society was equally heartless and artificial; religion had become little more than a collection of formulæ; poetry was a trick of stringing together smooth and formal couplets; army and navy alike were suffered to decay, and honeycombed with favouritism.
Yet it is now that the idea of patriotism becomes, at least in theory, well-nigh without a rival in England. The
idea of a personal devotion to royalty, overriding every other sentiment, was rendered absurd by the accession of the Elector of Hanover to the throne of England. A mean, ugly old libertine, probably a murderer, doting on fat German mistresses, unable to speak the language of his subjects, and more interested in Hanover than in England, was a figure calculated as little to command affection as to inspire loyalty, for all his creditable record as a soldier. But the alternative of a Stuart Pretender was one not likely to commend itself to many Englishmen. The very virtues of James Stuart were more prejudicial to his cause than his vices. A convinced and uncompromising Roman Catholic, he would not swerve from what he held to be true and right; just as the Count de Chambord, in 1871, forfeited his chances of a throne, because he would not discard the Fleur-de-Lis of his ancestors, for the Tricolour of the Revolution. Men of the type of Bolingbroke soon got tired of a prince whose stupid rectitude sorted so ill with their easy versatility.
Just as the virtues of the Stuarts (for staunchness and persistence even in a wrong cause are surely virtues) thwarted the attainment of their hopes, so the vices of the House of Hanover tended to their own profit. For three generations the Prince of Wales and the King stood to one another in a position of public and avowed hostility. The quarrels of George I with his strutting, ridiculous heir, or of George II, in his turn, with Prince Fred, "who was alive and is dead," are more subjects for our disgust than for our sympathy. And yet they served one very useful purpose, for the Opposition naturally tended to worship the rising star of a Brunswick, rather than the sunken orb of a Stuart.
The man who dominates, and to some extent typifies this period, is Sir Robert Walpole. If Drake and Cromwell are heroes of the poetic times of our history, we might almost call Walpole the hero of a prose age.
However little we may love the principles for which he stood, there is something massive and admirable about the man, a sturdy good sense, a fixity of purpose and a genial hatred of shams. Even amid the darkest night, the great man is not unrecognizable, his speech bewrayeth him. And Walpole, though his speeches are studiously prosaic and business-like, had a way of saying great things. If he had not inspiration, there was a massive good sense at the basis of his character, which made him fit to dominate his age. His wisdom in not enforcing commercial laws, that bore hardly on the colonies, his unsentimental passivity when the Spaniards were attacking Gibraltar, are evidences of a statesmanship none the less striking and original, because it is not of the highest order. He was, above all things, devotedly loyal to the Protestant succession, and he would be hardhearted indeed who could read without emotion the story of his last visit to London, when he was suffering agonies, and yet could summon up the resolution to devote his last energies to the assistance of his sovereign in the hour of need. The noblest tribute to his character is that of his opponent Pope, in one of the most tender and truly poetical passages he ever wrote:
Seen him I have, but in his happier hour
Of social pleasure, ill exchanged for power,
He does not think me what he thinks mankind."
Such a man could have little sympathy with the patriotic ideal of a Drake or Chatham. He was eminently an advocate of compromise. But it was such a man that England was demanding. When Marlborough came to England on the death of Anne he was received with enthusiasm by the crowd, but he soon discovered that there was no scope for his ambitious genius. There had been a pronounced commercial spirit even in the time of
the war, and now it assumed full sway. A perfect mania of speculation was breaking out all over Europe; it was the time of the South Sea Bubble, of Law's Mississippi Bank. The foreign policy of the Emperor hinged upon the needs of his Ostend Company. So great was the progress of discovery, so little were men's eyes accustomed to the new vistas, that there was almost a romance of moneygrabbing. One company was formed for importing jackasses from Spain, another for an object which was to be declared later, and needless to say, turned out to be the fleecing of the shareholders.
Sir Robert was borne into power on the crest of this wave, and most people will admit that he was the best man to whom the time could have allowed scope. Not only was he of transcendent financial ability, but he was born and bred a country gentleman. He was thus broad-minded enough to suit the commercial interest, and not unduly to annoy the landed interest. Commerce has no thirst for ideals, neither had Sir Robert. We need not go into the question as to whether he remarked that "Every man has his price," or whether he merely said of certain members "All these men have their price." The former is undoubtedly what he ought to have said. For there is a certain poetic instinct in great masses of men, which causes them to find for their leaders the phrase, which their whole career has been trying to express. Certain it is that Walpole made, and acted upon, the discovery that the men of his time were more easily led by money, than by eloquence or enthusiasm, and he made the best of the situation.
His foreign is in keeping with his domestic policy. With forethought and dignity, he aimed at peace at almost any price. He found a kindred spirit across the Channel in Cardinal Fleury, and it was under their auspices that the Triple Alliance was maintained between England, France and Holland. Even when the Spaniards were bombarding