The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 3. The Literary Gothic Terror or Wonder
Medieval literary studies undoubtedly encouraged the taste for such romantic effects as are beheld when abbeys or ruined castles are visited by twilight or moonlight; but the literary Gothic terror or wonder could be exercised without any more knowledge of the Middle Ages than Victor Hugo possessed, whose Notre Dame de Paris owes hardly anything of its triumph to medieval books. On the other hand, there was much literature of the Middle Ages known and studied in the earlier part of the eighteenth century without any great effect upon the aims or sensibilities of practising men of letters. There seems to have been no such prejudice against medieval literature, as there undoubtedly was, for a long time, against Gothic architecture. “Black letter” poetry and the books of chivalry were, naturally and rightly, believed to be old-fashioned, but they were not depreciated more emphatically than were the Elizabethans; and, perhaps, the very want of exact historical knowledge concerning the Middle Ages allowed reading men to judge impartially when medieval things came under their notice. Dryden’s praise of Chaucer is, altogether and in every particular, far beyond the reach of his age in criticism; but it is not at variance with the common literary judgment of his time, or of Pope’s. The principle is quite clear; in dealing with Chaucer, one must allow for his ignorance of true English verse and, of course, for his old English phrasing; but, then, he is to be taken on his merits, for his imagination and his narrative skill, and, so taken, he comes out a better example of sound poetical wit than Ovid himself, and more truly a follower of nature. Pope sees clearly and is not put off by literary prejudices; the theme of Eloisa to Abelard is neither better nor worse for dating back to the twelfth century, and he appropriates The Temple of Fame from Chaucer because he finds that its substance is good enough for him. Addison’s estimate of Chevy Chace is made in nearly the same spirit; only, here something controversial comes in. He shows that the old English ballad has some of the qualities of classical epic; epic virtues are not exclusively Greek and Roman. Yet, curiously, there is an additional moral; the ballad is not used as an alternative to the modern taste for correct writing, but, on the contrary, as a reproof to the metaphysical school, an example of “the essential and inherent perfection of simplicity of thought.” It is significant that the opposite manner, which is not simple, but broken up into epigram and points of wit, is called “Gothick” by Addison; the imitators of Cowley are “Gothick”; the medieval ballad, which many people would have reckoned “Gothick,” is employed as an example of classical simplicity to refute them. “Gothick” was so very generally used to denote what is now called “medieval”—“the Gothick romances,” “the Gothick mythology of elves and fairies”—that Addison’s paradoxical application of the term in those two papers can hardly have been unintentional; it shows, at any rate, that the prejudice against Gothic art did not mislead him in his judgment of old-fashioned poetry. In his more limited measure, he agrees with Dryden and Pope. What is Gothic in date may be classical in spirit.