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> Lillos Morality
Lillo and Prose Domestic Tragedy:
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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
The Drama and the Stage
§ 9. Lillos Morality.
Lillo puts Rowes earlier creed into aggressive practice. The atmosphere of
is that of the trading class, and its ideal the virtue of the merchants 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 Lillos 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 merchants vocation is thus defined: It is the industrious merchants 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 days 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 emergenciesWhen innocence is banishd, modesty soon follows; When vice becomes habitual, the very power of leaving it is lost. Maria inherits her fathers gift for sentiment. Even when Barnwell yields precipitately to Millwoods seductions, he ejaculates such unavailing precepts as these: To ease our present anguish, by plunging into guilt, is to buy a moments pleasure with an age of pain; The law of Heaven will not be reversd; 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 oertaken
By strong temptation, weakness, or surprize,
Lament their guilt and by repentance rise!
Th impenitent alone die unforgiven;
To sins 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
as Lillo says, is Drawn from the famd 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 Hogarths 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 Millwoods 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 uncles 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 Millwoods 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 dont know that person in the world whose happiness I dont wish, and woudnt 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 Millwoods 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 Lillos 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 Lillos 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 unnumberd veins of gold and silver ore. Most grotesque is the dialogue of the scenes of the uncles murder. His prophetic soul forebodes evil and his imagination is filld with gashly forms of dreary graves, and bodies changd by death. His apostrophe to Death, thou strange mysterious powerseen every day, yet never understood but by the incommunicative deadunnerves the murderer for the moment, and hardly has the deed been perpetrated when Barnwell throws himself on the body of the expiring saint, his martyrd 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, Lillos 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 Lillos 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.
. Hogarths first work of importance,
A Harlots Progress,
appeared the year after
. Notably of Marwood in Lessings
Miss Sara Sampson.
The Lives of the Poets of Great-Britain and Ireland.
By Mr. (Theophilus) Cibber, and other Hands. (1753), vol.
INDEX OF ALL CHAPTERS
Lillo and Prose Domestic Tragedy: