Home  »  Volume X: English THE AGE OF JOHNSON  »  § 9. Lillo’s Morality

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

IV. The Drama and the Stage

§ 9. Lillo’s Morality

Lillo puts Rowe’s earlier creed into aggressive practice. The atmosphere of George Barnwell is that of the trading class, and its ideal the virtue of the merchant’s calling. Thorowgood, the honest merchant, gratifies the “laudable curiosity” of his faithful apprentice, Trueman, as to the political situation,

  • because from thence you may learn how honest merchants, as such, may sometimes contribute to the safety of their country, as they do at all times to its happiness; that if hereafter you should be tempted to any action that has the appearance of vice or meanness in it, upon reflecting on the dignity of our profession; you may with honest scorn reject whatever is unworthy of it.… As the name of merchant never degrades the gentleman, so by no means does it exclude him.
  • Even the rapid downward course of Lillo’s erring prenticehero is interrupted, at the opening of the third act, to allow Thorowgood to continue his instructions to Trueman on the ethics of business and the moral mission of commerce. Trueman is bidden to observe how trade
  • has promoted humanity, as it has opened and yet keeps up an intercourse between nations, far remote from one another in situation, customs, and religion; promoting arts, industry, peace and plenty; by mutual benefits diffusing mutual love from pole to pole.
  • The merchant’s vocation is thus defined: “It is the industrious merchant’s business to collect the various blessings of each soil and climate, and, with the product of the whole, to enrich his native country.” Even when, with something of a sigh, he descends to the routine of the day’s work, he delivers such business maxims as, “Method in business is the surest guide.”

    In conscious moral aim, Lillo is akin to the sentimental dramatists. He seeks deliberately

  • thoughtless youth to warn, and shame the age
  • From vice destructive.
  • Thorowgood is “a man of sentiment,” and, unlike Joseph Surface, “acts up to the sentiments he professes.” From his store of commonplaces, he draws apposite maxims for moral as well as business emergencies—“When innocence is banish’d, modesty soon follows“; “When vice becomes habitual, the very power of leaving it is lost.” Maria inherits her father’s gift for sentiment. Even when Barnwell yields precipitately to Millwood’s seductions, he ejaculates such unavailing precepts as these: “To ease our present anguish, by plunging into guilt, is to buy a moment’s pleasure with an age of pain”; “The law of Heaven will not be revers’d; and that requires us to govern our passions.” Sentiment attends him even to the gallows. He parts from his mistress with this cold consolation:
  • From our example may all be taught to fly the first approach of vice; but, if o’ertaken
  • By strong temptation, weakness, or surprize,
  • Lament their guilt and by repentance rise!
  • Th’ impenitent alone die unforgiven;
  • To sin’s like man, and to forgive like Heaven.
  • In the moralised drama of the eighteenth century, didactic sentiment is not merely the reward of virtue but a very present help in trouble.

    The plot of George Barnwell, as Lillo says, is “Drawn from the fam’d old song that bears his name.” Ballad and play tell alike the story of the ruin of an apprentice by a courtesan. The theme suggests Hogarth’s plates—Trueman is the industrious, and Barnwell and idle, apprentice. Lillo ekes out the somewhat meagre materials of the ballad by introducing Maria, Trueman and Millwood’s servants, and by expanding the shadowy figure of the merchant into Thorowgood. He presents his hero in a more sympathetic light by shifting to Millwood the responsibility for the suggestion of his uncle’s murder, and by emphasising his “fear and sting of conscience,” of which the ballad makes but passing mention.

    In portrayal of character, Lillo is often crude and sometimes inconsistent. At the outset, Barnwell, “young, innocent, and bashful,” is an unsuspecting innocent, whose response to Millwood’s leading question as to his thoughts of love would, in a less sentimental age, stamp him as either a prig or a hypocrite:

  • If you mean the love of women, I have not thought of it all. My youth and circumstances make such thoughts improper in me yet. But if you mean the general love we owe to mankind, I think no one has more of it is his temper than my self. I don’t know that person in the world whose happiness I don’t wish, and wou’dn’t promote, were it in my power. In an especial manner I love my Uncle, and my Master, but, above all, my friend.
  • Yet he yields to temptation, almost without resistance; nor can he be defended on the score of innocent ignorance, since the moral aphorisms with which he meets Millwood’s advances clearly betray his consciousness of guilt. His morality is but a thin veneer, penetrated at the first touch. Yet, assuredly, this is not the conception of character which Lillo sought to impart. Millwood is a more consistent study in passion and depravity, and became the prototype of more than one powerful dramatic figure.

    To Lillo’s influence on the subjects of English tragedy must be added his no less marked influence upon its language. He deliberately adopted prose as the vehicle of expression for domestic tragedy. He accepts, indeed, the convention of rimetags at the end of every act and at the conclusion of some scenes during the act; but his main intent is to give domestic drama the vocabulary and phrase that suit his theme. Judged by modern standards, his attempt to abandon the sublime frequently achieves the ridiculous. So firmly fastened was the habit of verse tragedy that Lillo’s dialogue often preserves the inverted phrases and general rhythmic movement, and, at times, the actual scansion, of blank verse.

  • The martyr cheaply purchases his heaven. Small are his sufferings, great is his reward; not so the wretch who combats love with duty.… What is an hour, a day, a year of pain, to a whole life of tortures such as these?
  • The habit of ornate description also persists even with the honest merchant: “The populous East, luxuriant abounds with glittering gems, bright pearls, aromatick spices, and healthrestoring drugs. The late found Western World glows with unnumber’d veins of gold and silver ore.” Most grotesque is the dialogue of the scenes of the uncle’s murder. His prophetic soul forebodes evil and his “imagination is fill’d with gashly forms of dreary graves, and bodies chang’d by death.” His apostrophe to “Death, thou strange mysterious power—seen every day, yet never understood but by the incommunicative dead”—unnerves the murderer for the moment, and hardly has the deed been perpetrated when Barnwell throws himself on the body of the “expiring saint,” his “martyr’d uncle,” with an outbreak of inflated rhetoric which expires in moralised heroic couplets. Judged by the modern standards of prose drama that has felt the influence of Ibsen, Lillo’s prose is sheer travesty. Yet his was an age accustomed to the artificial rhetoric of sentimental drama, as it was to the “grand manner” in acting. Even so classical a critic as Pope deemed that, if Lillo “had erred through the whole play, it was only in a few places, where he had unawares led himself into a poetical luxuriancy, affecting to be too elevated or the simplicity of the subject.” In Lillo’s hands, the old shackles of verse tragedy are broken; but cruel marks of the fetters remain visible. Beyond doubt, he sinned greatly; yet much may be forgiven to one who showed, however imperfectly, that serious drama might find expression in prose.