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Even Byron showed himself, in the third canto of Childe Harold, to be one of his disciples, though he fiercely resented being called so. The same poet did not disdain to learn of Scott in composing his narrative poems, such as the Bride of Abydos and the Giaour, though he could never tell a story in verse without occasional tediousness. In our day the style of writing adopted by eminent living poets is often seen reflected in the verses of their younger contemporaries, - sometimes with an effect like that of a face beheld in a tarnished mirror. Thus it is that poets are formed by their influence on one another; the greatest of them are more or less indebted for what they are to their predecessors and their contemporaries.
While speaking of these changes in the public taste, I am tempted to caution the reader against the mistake often made of estimating the merit of one poet by the too easy process of comparing him with another. The varieties of poetic excellence are as great as the varieties of beauty in flowers or in the female face. There is no poet, indeed no author in any department of literature, who can be taken as a standard in judging of others; the true standard is an ideal one, and even this is not the same in all men's minds. One delights in grace, another in strength; one in a fiery vehemence and enthusiasm on the surface, another in majestic repose and the expression of feeling too deep to be noisy; one loves simple and obvious images strikingly employed, or familiar thoughts placed in a new light, another is satisfied only with novelties of thought and expression, with uncommon illustrations and images far sought. It is certain that each of these modes of treating a subject may have its peculiar merit, and that it is absurd to require of those whose genius inclines them to one that they should adopt its opposite, or to set one down as inferior to another because he is not of the same class. As well, in looking through an astronomer's telescope at that beautiful phenomenon, a double star, in which the twin flames are one of a roseate and the other of a golden tint, might we quarrel with either of them because it is not colored like its fellow. Some of the comparisons made by critics between one poet and another are scarcely less preposterous than would be a comparison between a river and a mountain.
The compiler of this collection has gone as far back as to the author who may properly be called the father of English poetry, and who wrote while our language was like the lion in Milton's account of the creation, when rising from the earth at the Divine command and
pawing to get free
His hinder parts," for it was still clogged by the unassimilated portions of the French tongue, to which in part it owed its origin. These were to be thrown aside in after years. The versification had also one characteristic of French verse which was soon after Chaucer's time laid aside, - the mute or final e had in his lines the value of a syllable by itself, especially when the next word began with a consonant. But though these peculiarities somewhat embarrass the reader, he still finds in the writings of the old poet a fund of the good old English of the Saxon fireside, which makes them worthy to be studied were it only to strengthen our hold on our language. He delighted in describing natural objects which still retained their Saxon names, and this he did with great beauty and sweetness. In the sentiments also the critics ascribe to him a degree of delicacy which one could scarcely have looked for in the age in which he wrote, though at other times he avails himself of the license then allowed. There is no majesty, no stately march of numbers, in his poetry, still less is there of fire, rapidity, or conciseness ; the French and Italian narrative poets from whom he learned his art wrote as if the people of their time had nothing to do but to attend to long stories, and Chaucer, who translated from the French the Romaunt of the Rose, though a greater poet than any of those whom he took for his models, made small improvement upon them in this respect. His Troylus and Cryseyde, with but little action and incident, is as long as either of the epics of Homer. The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer's best things, have less of this defect; but even there the narrative is overminute, and the personages, as Taine, the French critic, remarks, although they talk well, talk too much. The taste for this prolixity in narratives and conversations had a long duration in English poetry, since we find the same tediousness, to call it by its true name, in Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis and his Lucrece, written more than two hundred years later. Yet in the mean time the old popular ballads of England and Scotland had been composed, in which the incidents follow each other in quick succession, and the briefest possible speeches are uttered by the personages. The scholars and court poets doubtless disdained to learn anything of these poets of the people, and the Davideis of Cowley, who lived three hundred years after Chaucer, is as remarkable for the sluggish progress of the story and the tediousness of the harangues as for any other characteristics.
Between the time of Chaucer and that of Sidney and Spenser we find little in the poetic literature of our language to detain our attention. That age produced many obscure versifiers, and metrical romances continued to be written after the fashion of the French and Italian poets, whom Chaucer acknowledged as his masters. During this period appeared Shelton, the poet and jester, whose special talent was facility in rhyming, who rhymed as if he could not help it, - as if he had only to put pen to paper, and the words leaped of their own accord into regular measure with an inev. itable jingle at the endings. Meantime our language was undergoing a process which gradually separated the nobler parts from the dross, rejecting the French additions for which there was no occasion, or which could not easily be made to take upon themselves the familiar forms of our tongue. The prosody of English became also fixed in that period; the final e which so perplexes the modern reader in Chaucer's verse was no longer permitted to figure as a distinct syllable. The poets, however, still allowed themselves the liberty of sometimes making, after the French manner, two syllables of the terminations tion and ion, so that nation became a word of three syllables and opinion a word of four. The Sonnets of Sidney, written on the Italian model, have all the grace and ingenuity of those of Petrarch. In the Faerie Queene of Spenser it seems to me that we find the English language, so far as the purposes of poetry require, in a degree of perfection beyond which it has not been since carried, and, I suppose, never will be. A vast assemblage of poetic endowments contributed to the composition of the poem, yet I think it would not be ensy to name one of the same length, and the work of a genius equally great, in any language,
which more fatigues the reader in a steady perusal from beginning to end. In it we have an invention ever awake, active, and apparently inexhaustible; an affluence of imagery grand, beautiful, or magnificent, as the subject may require; wise observations on human life steeped in a poetic coloring, and not without touches of pathos ; a wonderful mastery of versification, and the aptest forms of expression. We read at first with admiration, yet to this erelong succeeds a sense of satiety, and we lay down the book, not unwilling, however, after an interval, to take it up with renewed admiration. I once heard an eminent poet say that he thought the second part of the Faerie Queene inferior to the first; yet I am inclined to ascribe the remark rather to a falling off in the attention of the reader than in the merit of the work. A poet, however, would be more likely to persevere to the end than any other reader, since in every stanza he would meet with some lesson in his art.
In that fortunate age of English literature arose a greater than Spenser. Let me only say of Shakespeare, that in his dramas, amid certain faults imputable to the taste of the English public, there is to be found every conceivable kind of poetic excellence. At the same time and immediately after him flourished a group of dramatic poets who drew their inspiration from nature and wrote with manly vigor. One would naturally suppose that their example, along with the more illustrious ones of Spenser and Shakespeare, would influence and form the taste of the succeeding age; but almost before they had ceased to claim the attention of the public, and while the eminent divines, Barrow, Jeremy Taylor, and others, wrote nobly in prose with a genuine eloquence and a fervor scarcely less than poetic, appeared the school of writers in verse whom Johnson, by a phrase the propriety of which has been disputed, calls the metaphysical poets, a class of wits whose whole aim was to extort admiration by ingenious conceits, thoughts of such unexpectedness and singularity that one wondered how they could ever come into the mind of the author. For what they regarded as poetic effect they depended, not upon the sense of beauty or grandeur, not upon depth or earnestness of feeling, but simply upon surprise at quaint and strange resemblances, contrasts, and combinations of ideas. These were delivered for the most part in rugged diction, and in numbers so harsh as to be almost unmanageable by the reader. Cowley, a man of real genius, and of a more musical versification than his fellows, was the most distinguished example of this school. Milton, born a little before Cowley, and like him an eminent poet in his teens, is almost the only instance of escape from the infection of this vicious style ; his genius was of too robust a mould for such petty employments, and he would have made, if he had condescended to them, as ill a figure as his own Samson on the stage of a mountebank. Dryden himself, in some of his earlier poems, appears as a pupil of this school; but he soon outgrew - in great part, at least the false taste of the time, and set an example of a nobler treatment of poetic subjects.
Yet though the genius of Dryden reacted against this perversion of the art of verse, it had not the power to raise the poetry of our language to the height which it occupied in the Elizabethan age. Within a limited range he was a true poet; his imagi. nation was far from fertile, nor had he much skill in awakening emotion, but he could treat certain subjects magnificently in verse, and often where his imagination fails him he is sustained by the vigor of his understanding and the largeness of his knowledge. He gave an example of versification in the heroic couplet, which has commanded the admiration of succeeding poets down to our time, a versification manly, majestic, and of varied modulation, of which Pope took only a certain part as the model of his own, and, contracting its range and reducing it to more regular pauses, made it at first appear more musical to the reader, but in the end fatigued him by its monotony. Dryden drew scarcely a single image from his own observation of external nature, and Pope, though less insensible than he to natural beauty, was still merely the poet of the drawing-room. Yet he is the author of more happy lines, which have passed into the common speech and are quoted as proverbial sayings, than any author we have save Shakespeare; and, whatever may be said in his dispraise, he is likely to be quoted as long as the English is a living language. The footprints of Pope are not those of a giant, but he has left them scattered all over the field of our literature, although the fashion of writing like him has wholly passed away.
Certain faculties of the poetic mind seem to have slumbered from the time of Milton to that of Thomson, who showed the literary world of Great Britain, to its astonishment, what a profusion of materials for poetry Nature offers to him who directly consults her instead of taking his images at second-hand. Thomson's blank verse, however, is often swollen and bladdery to a painful degree. He seems to have imagined, like many other writers of his time, that blank verse could not support itself without the aid of a stilted phraseology; for that fine poem of his, in the Spenserian stanza, the Castle of Indolence, shows that when he wrote in rhyme he did not think it necessary to depart from a natural style.
Wordsworth is generally spoken of as one who gave to our literature that impulse which brought the poets back from the capricious forms of expression in vogue before his time to a certain fearless simplicity ; for it must be acknowledged that until he arose there was scarce any English poet who did not seem in some degree to labor under the apprehension of becoming too simple and natural, -- to imagine that a certain pomp of words is necessary to elevate the style and make that grand and noble which in its direct expression would be homely and trivial. Yet the poetry of Wordsworth was but the consummation of a tendency already existing and active. Cowper had already felt it in writing his Task, and in his longer rhymed poems had not only attempted a freer versification than that of Pope, but had clothed his thoughts in the manly English of the better age of our poetry. Percy's Reliques had accustomed English readers to perceive the extreme beauty of the old ballads in their absolute simplicity, and shown how much superior these were to such productions as Percy's own Hermit of Warkworth and Goldsmith's Edwin and Angelina, in their feeble elegance. Burns's inimitable Scottish poems his English verses are tumid and wordy
had taught the same lesson. We may infer that the genius of Wordsworth was in a great degree influenced by these, just as he in his turn contributed to form the taste of those who wrote after him. It was long, however, before he reached the eminence which he now holds in the estimation of the literary world. His Lyrical Ballads, published about the close of the last century, were at first little read, and
of those who liked them there were few who were not afraid to express their admiration. Yet his fame has slowly climbed from stage to stage until now his influence is perceived in all the English poetry of the day. If this were the place to criticise his poetry, I should say, of his more stately poems in blank verse, that they often lack compression, — that the thought suffers by too great expansion. Wordsworth was unnecessarily afraid of being epigrammatic. He abhorred what is called a point as much as Dennis is said to have abhorred a pun. Yet I must own that even his most diffuse amplifications have in them a certain grandeur that fills the mind.
At a somewhat later period arose the poet Keats, who wrote in a manner which carried the reader back to the time when those charming passages of lyrical enthusiasm were produced which we occasionally find in the plays of Shakespeare, in those of Beaumont and Fletcher, and in Milton's Comus. The verses of Keats are occasionally disfigured, especially in his Endymion, by a flatness almost childish, but in the finer passages they clothe the thought in the richest imagery and in words each of which is a poem. Lowell has justly called Keats "over-languaged," but there is scarce a word that we should be willing to part with in his Ode to the Nightingale, and that on a Grecian Urn, and the same thing may be said of the greater part of his Hyperion. His poems were ridiculed in the Edinburgh Review, but they survived the ridicule, and now, fifty years after their first publication, the poetry of the present day, by certain resemblances of manner, testifies to the admiration with which he is still read.
The genius of Byron was of a more vigorous mould than that of Keats; but notwithstanding his great popularity and the number of his imitators at one time, he made a less permanent impression on the character of English poetry. His misanthropy and gloom, his scoffing vein, and the fierceness of his animosities, after the first glow of admiration was over, had a repellent effect upon readers, and made them turn to more cheerful strains. Moore had in his time many imitators, but all his gayety, his brilliant fancy, his somewhat feminine graces, and the elaborate music of his numbers, have not saved him from the fate of being imitated no more. Coleridge and Southey were of the same school with Wordsworth, and only added to the effect of his example upon our literature. Coleridge is the author of the two most perfect poetical translations which our language in his day could boast, those of Schiller’s Piccolomini and Death of Wallenstein, in which the English verse falls in no respect short of the original German. Southey divides with Scott the honor of writing the first long narrative poems in our language which can be read without occasional weariness.
Of the later poets, educated in part by the generation of authors which produced Wordsworth and Byron and in part by each other, yet possessing their individual peculiarities, I should perhaps speak with more reserve. The number of those who are attempting to win a name in this walk of literature is great, and several of them have already gained, and through many years held, the public favor. To some of them will be assigned an enduring station among the eminent of their class.
There are two tendencies by which the seekers after poetic fame in our day are apt to be misled, through both the example of others and the applause of critics.