Like Some Account of the Greek Christian Poets, which this essay follows, The Book of the Poets appeared unsigned in the Athenæum, its only publication in EBB's lifetime. Its five parts appeared on 4, 11, and 25 June, and 6 and 13 August 1842. It is ostensibly a review of the unsigned anthology The Book of the Poets: Chaucer to Beattie (published by Scott, Webster, & Geary, London, 1842). Similarly, an overview of American poetry in the form of a review of Cornelius Matthews' Poems on Man in His Various Aspects under the American Republic (New York, 1843) was published in Tait's Edinburgh Magazine (XII) in June of 1845. A fourth essay by EBB, a review of William Wordsworth's Poems, chiefly of early and late years, including The Borderers, a Tragedy (Moxon, 1842), was published in August 1842 in The Athenæum (pp. 757-59), appearing in the same month as the concluding section of The Book of the Poets.
The essay was reprinted posthumously in 1863, together with EBB's Some Account of the Greek Christian Poets and her review of Wordsworth's The Borderers, in an edition that Robert Browning oversaw titled The Greek Christian Poets and the English Poets. It appears with an extended introduction and annotations in volume 4 of The Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ed. S. Donaldson, et al. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2010), pp. 443-505.
Acknowledgements: Sheldon Goldfarb, Philip Kelley, Jane Stuart Laux, and Amy Watkin.
THE BOOK OF THE POETS. SCOTT, WEBSTER AND GEARY
THE voice of the turtle is heard in the land. The green book of the earth is open, and the four winds are turning the leaves, – while Nature, chief secretary to the creative Word, sits busy at her inditing of many a love poem, – her 'Flower and the Leaf,' on this side, her 'Cuckoo and the Nightingale' on that; her 'Paradise of Dainty Devices' in and out among the valleys, her 'Polyolbion' away across the hills, her 'Britannia's Pastorals' on the home meadows, her sonnets of tufted primroses, her lyrical outgushings of May blossoming, her epical and didactic solemnities of light and shadow, – and many an illustrative picture to garnish the universal annual. What book shall we open side by side with Nature's? First, the book of God. 'The Book of the Poets' may well come next – even this book, if it deserves indeed the nobility of its name.
But this book, which is not Campbell's Selection from the British Poets, nor Southey's, nor different from either by being better, resembles many others of the nobly named, whether princes or hereditary legislators, in bearing a name too noble for its desert. This book, consisting of short extracts from the books of the poets, beginning with Chaucer, ending with Beattie, and missing sundry by the way, – we call it indefinitely 'A book of the poets,' and leave it thankful. The extracts from Chaucer are topsy-turvy – one from the Canterbury Tales prologue thrown in between two from the Knight's tale; while Gower may blame "his fortune" –
(And some men hold opinion
That it is constellation,)
for the dry specimen crumbled off from his man-mountainism. Of Lydgate there is scarcely a page; of Occleve, Hawes, and Skelton – the two last especially interesting in poetical history, – of Sackville, and the whole generation of dramatists, not a word. "The table is not full," and the ringing on it of Phillips's 'Splendid Shilling,' will not bribe us to endurance. What! place for Pomfret's platitudes, and no place for Shakspeare's divine sonnets? and no place for Jonson's and Fletcher's lyrics? Do lyrics and sonnets perish out of place whenever their poets make tragedies too, quenched by the entity of tragedy? We suggest that Shakspeare has nearly as much claim to place in any possible book of the poets (though also a book of the poetasters) as ever can have John Hughes, who "as a poet, is chiefly known," saith the critical editor, "by his tragedy of the 'Siege of Damascus.'" Let this book therefore accept our boon, and remain a book of the poets, thankfully if not gloriously, – while we, on our own side, may be thankful too, that in the present days of the millennium of Jeremy Bentham, a more literally golden age than the laureates of Saturnus dreamed withal, – any memory of the poets should linger with the booksellers, and come "up this way" with the spring. The thing is good, in that it is at all. Send a little child into a garden, and he will be sure to bring you a nosegay worth having, though the red weed in it should "side the lily," and sundry of the prettiest flowers be held stalk upwards. Flowers are flowers and poets are poets, and "A book of the poets" must be right welcome at every hour of the clock. For the preliminary essay, which is very moderately well done, we embrace it, with our fingers at least, in taking up the volume. It pleases us better on the solitary point of the devotional poets than Mr. Campbell's beautiful treatise, doing, as it seems to us, more frank justice to the Withers's, the Quarles's, and the Crashaws. Otherwise the criticism and philosophy to be found in it are scarcely of the happiest, – although even the first astonishing paragraph which justifies the utility of poetry on the ground of its being an attractive variety of language, a persuasive medium for abstract ideas, (as reasonable were the justification of a seraph's essence deduced from the cloud beneath his foot!) shall not provoke us back to discontent from the vision of the poets of England, suggested by the title of this 'Book,' and stretching along gloriously to our survey.
Our poetry has an heroic genealogy. It arose where the sun rises, in the far East. It came out from Arabia, and was tilted on the lance-heads of the Saracens into the heart of Europe, Armorica catching it in rebound from Spain, and England from Armorica. It issued in its first breath from Georgia, wrapt in the gathering cry of Persian Odin: and passing from the orient of the sun to the antagonistic snows of Iceland, and oversweeping the black pines of Germany and the jutting shores of Scandinavia, and embodying in itself all way-side sounds, even to the rude shouts of the brazen-throated Cimbri, – so modified, multiplied, resonant in a thousand Runic echoes, it rushed abroad like a blast into Britain. In Britain, the Arabic Saracenic Armorican, and the Georgian Gothic Scandinavian mixed sound at last; and the dying suspirations of the Grecian and Latin literatures, the last low stir of the "Gesta Romanorum," with the apocryphal personations of lost authentic voices, breathed up together through the fissures of the rent universe to help the new intonation and accomplish the cadence. Genius was thrust onward to a new slope of the world. And soon, when simpler minstrels had sate there long enough to tune the ear of time, – when Layamon and his successors had hummed long enough, like wild bees, upon the lips of our infant poetry predestined to eloquence, – then Robert Langlande, the monk, walking for cloister "by a wode's syde" on the Malvern hills, took counsel with his holy "Plowman," and sang of other visions than their highest ridge can show. While we write, the woods upon those beautiful hills are obsolete, even as Langlande's verses; scarcely a shrub grows upon the hills! but it is well for the thinkers of England to remember reverently, while taking thought of her poetry they stand among the gorse, – that if we may boast now of more honoured localities, of Shakspeare's "rocky Avon," and Spenser's "soft-streaming Thames," and Wordsworth's "Rydal Mere," still our first holy poet-ground is there.
But it is in Chaucer we touch the true height, and look abroad into the kingdoms and glories of our poetical literature, – it is with Chaucer that we begin our 'Books of the Poets,' our collections and selections, our pride of place and name. And the genius of the poet shares the character of his position: he was made for an early poet, and the metaphors of dawn and spring doubly become him. A morning-star, a lark's exultation, cannot usher in a glory better. The "cheerful morning face," "the breezy call of incense-breathing morn," you recognize in his countenance and voice: it is a voice full of promise and prophecy. He is the good omen of our poetry, the "good bird," according to the Romans, "the best good angel of the spring," the nightingale, according to his own creed of good luck, heard before the cuckoo.
Up rose the sunne, and uprose Emilie,
and uprose her poet, the first of a line of kings, conscious of futurity in his smile. He is a king and inherits the earth, and expands his great soul smilingly to embrace his great heritage. Nothing is too high for him to touch with a thought, nothing too low to dower with an affection. As a complete creature cognate of life and death, he cries upon God, – as a sympathetic creature he singles out a daisy from the universe ("si douce est la marguerite,") to lie down by half a summer's day and bless it for fellowship. His senses are open and delicate, like a young child's – his sensibilities capacious of supersensual relations, like an experienced thinker's. Child-like, too, his tears and smiles lie at the edge of his eyes, and he is one proof more among the many, that the deepest pathos and the quickest gaieties hide together in the same nature. He is too wakeful and curious to lose the stirring of a leaf, yet not too wide awake to see visions of green and white ladies between the branches; and a fair house of fame and a noble court of love are built and holden in the winking of his eyelash. And because his imagination is neither too "high fantastical" to refuse proudly the gravitation of the earth, nor too "light of love" to lose it carelessly, he can create as well as dream, and work with clay as well as cloud, – and when his men and women stand close by the actual ones, your stop-watch shall reckon no difference in the beating of their hearts. He knew the secret of nature and art, – that truth is beauty, – and saying "I will make 'A Wife of Bath' as well as Emilie, and you shall remember her as long," we do remember her as long. And he sent us a train of pilgrims, each with a distinct individuality apart from the pilgrimage, all the way from Southwark and the Tabard Inn, to Canterbury and Becket's shrine: and their laughter comes never to an end, and their talk goes on with the stars, and all the railroads which may intersect the spoilt earth for ever, cannot hush the "tramp, tramp" of their horses' feet.
Controversy is provocative. We cannot help observing, because certain critics observe otherwise, that Chaucer utters as true music as ever came from poet or musician; that some of the sweetest cadences in all our English are extant in his – "swete upon his tongue" in completest modulation. Let "Denham's strength, and Waller's sweetness join" the Io pæan of a later age, the "eurekamen" of Pope and his generation. Not one of the "Queen Anne's men," measuring out a tuneful breath upon their fingers, like ribbons for topknots, did know the art of versification as the old rude Chaucer knew it. Call him rude for the picturesqueness of the epithet; but his verse has, at least, as much regularity in the sense of true art, and more manifestly in proportion to our increasing acquaintance with his dialect and pronunciation, as can be discovered or dreamed in the French school. Critics indeed have set up a system based upon the crushed atoms of first principles, maintaining that poor Chaucer wrote by accent only! Grant to them that he counted no verses on his fingers; grant that he never disciplined his highest thoughts to walk up and down in a paddock – ten paces and a turn; grant that his singing is not after the likeness of their singsong – but there end your admissions. It is our ineffaceable impression, in fact, that the whole theory of accent and quantity held in relation to ancient and modern poetry stands upon a fallacy, totters rather than stands; and that when considered in connexion with such old moderns as our Chaucer, the fallaciousness is especially apparent. Chaucer wrote by quantity, just as Homer did before him, just as Goethe did after him, just as all poets must. Rules differ, principles are identical. All rhythm presupposes quantity. Organ-pipe or harp, the musician plays by time. Greek or English, Chaucer or Pope, the poet sings by time. What is this accent but a stroke, an emphasis, with a successive pause to make complete the time? And what is the difference between this accent and quality but the difference between a harp-note and an organ-note? otherwise, quantity expressed in different ways? It is as easy for matter to subsist out of space, as music out of time.
Side by side with Chaucer comes Gower, who is ungratefully disregarded too often, because side by side with Chaucer. He who rides in the king's chariot will miss the people's "hic est." Could Gower be considered apart, there might be found signs in him of an independent royalty, however his fate may seem to lie in waiting for ever in his brother's ante-chamber, like Napoleon's tame kings. To speak our mind, he has been much undervalued. He is nailed to a comparative degree; and everybody seems to make it a condition of speaking of him, that something be called inferior within him, and something superior, out of him. He is laid down flat, as a dark background for "throwing out" Chaucer's lights – he is used as που στω for leaping up into the empyrean of Chaucer's praise. This is not just nor worthy. His principal poem, the 'Confessio Amantis,' preceded the 'Canterbury Tales,' and proves an abundant fancy, a full head and full heart, and neither ineloquent. We do not praise its design, – in which the father confessor is set up as a storyteller, like the bishop of Tricca, "avec l'ame," like the cardinal de Retz, "la moins ecclesiastique du monde," – while we admit that he tells his stories as if born to the manner of it, and that they are not much the graver, nor, peradventure, the holier either, for the circumstances of the confessorship. They are indeed told gracefully and pleasantly enough, and if with no superfluous life and gesture, with an active sense of beauty in some sort, and as flowing a rhythm as may bear comparison with many octosyllabics of our day; Chaucer himself having done more honour to their worth as stories than we can do in our praise, by adopting and crowning several of their number for king's sons within his own palaces. And this recals that, at the opening of one glorious felony, the Man of Lawe's tale, he has written, a little unlawfully and ungratefully considering the connexion, some lines of harsh significance upon poor Gower, – whence has been conjectured by the grey gossips of criticism, a literary jealousy, an unholy enmity, nothing less than a soul-chasm between the contemporary poets. We believe nothing of it; no, nor of the Shakspeare and Jonson feud after it.
To alle such cursed stories we saie fy.
That Chaucer wrote in irritation is clear: that he was angry seriously and lastingly, or beyond the pastime of passion spent in a verse as provoked by a verse, there appears to us no reason for crediting. But our idea of the nature of the irritation will expound itself in our idea of the offence, which is here in Dan Gower's proper words, as extracted from Ladie Venus's speech in the 'Confessio Amantis.'
And grete well Chaucer whan ye mete,
As my disciple and poete! –
* * * *
Forthy now in his daies old,
Thou shalt him telle this message,
That he upon his latter age,
To sette an ende of alle his werke
As he who is mine owne clerke,
Do make his testament of love."
We would not slander Chaucer's temper, – we believe, on the contrary, that he had the sweetest temper in the world, – and still it is our conviction, none the weaker, that he was far from being entirely pleased by this "message." We are sure he did not like the message, and not many poets would. His "elvish countenance" might well grow dark, and "his sugred mouth" speak somewhat sourly, in response to such a message. Decidedly, in our opinion, it was an impertinent message, a provocative message, a most inexcusable and odious message! Waxing hotter ourselves the longer we think of it, there is more excuse for Chaucer. For, consider, gentle reader! this indecorous message preceded the appearance of the Canterbury Tales, and proceeded from a rival poet in the act of completing his principal work, – its plain significance being "I have done my poem, and you cannot do yours because you are superannuated." And this, while the great poet addressed, was looking forward farther than the visible horizon, his eyes dilated with a mighty purpose. And to be counselled by this, to shut them forsooth, and take his crook and dog and place in the valleys like a grey shepherd of the Pyrenees – he, who felt his foot strong upon the heights! he, with no wrinkle on his forehead deep enough to touch the outermost of inward smooth dreams – he in the divine youth of his healthy soul, in the quenchless love of his embracing sympathies, in the untired working of his perpetual energies, – to "make an ende of alle his werke" and be told, as if he were not a poet! "Go to, O vain man," – we do not reckon the age of the poet's soul by the shadow on the dial! Enough that it falls upon his grave.
Occleve and Lydgate both breathed the air of the world while Chaucer breathed it, although surviving him so long as rather to take standing as his successors than contemporaries. Both called him "master" with a faithful reverting tenderness, and, however we are bound to distinguish Lydgate as the higher poet of the two, Occleve's 'Alas' may become the other's lips –
Alas, that thou thine excellent prudence
In thy bed mortell mightest not bequeath!
For alas! it was not bequeathed. Lydgate's Thebaid, attached by its introduction to the 'Canterbury Tales,' gives or enforces the occasion for sighing comparisons with the master's picturesque vivacity, while equally in delicacy and intenseness we admit no progress in the disciple. He does, in fact, appear to us so much overrated by the critics, that we are tempted to extend to his poetry his own admission on his monkish dress, –
I wear a habit of perfection
Although my life agree not with that same.
and to opine concerning the praise and poetry taken together, that the latter agrees not with that same. An elegant poet – "poeta elegans" – was he called by the courteous Pits, – a questionable compliment in most cases, while the application in the particular one agrees not with that same. An improver of the language he is granted to be by all; and a voluminous writer of respectable faculties in his position, could scarcely help being so – he has flashes of genius, but they are not prolonged to the point of warming the soul, – can strike a bold note, but fails to hold it on, – attains to moments of power and pathos, but wears, for working days, no habit of perfection.
These are our thoughts of Lydgate; and yet when he ceased his singing, none sang better; there was silence in the land. In Scotland, indeed, poet-tongues were not all mute; the air across the borders "gave delight and hurt not." Here in the south it was otherwise: and unless we embrace in our desolation such poems as the rhyming chronicles of Harding and Fabian, we must hearken for music to the clashing of "Bilboa blades," and be content that the wars of the red and white roses should silence the warbling of the nightingales. That figure dropped to our pen's point, and the reader may accept it as a figure – as no more. To illustrate by figures the times and seasons of poetical manifestation and decay, is at once easier and more reasonable than to attempt to account for them by causes. We do not believe that poets multiply in peace-time like sheep and sheaves, nor that they fly, like partridges, at the first beating of the drum; and we do believe, having a previous faith in the pneumatic character of their gift, that the period of its bestowment is not subject to the calculations of our philosophy. Let, therefore the long silence from Chaucer and his disciples down to the sixteenth century, be left standing as a fact undisturbed by any good reasons for its existence, or by any other company than some harmless metaphor – harmless and ineffectual as a glow-worm's glitter at the foot of a colossal statue of Harpocrates. Call it, if you please, as Warton does, "a nipping frost succeeding a premature spring;" or call it, because we would not think our Chaucer premature, or the silence cruel – the trance of English Poetry! her breath, once emitted creatively, indrawn and retained, – herself sinking into deep sleep, like the mother of Apollonius before the glory of a vision, to awaken, to leap up (εξεθορε says Philostratus, the narrator) in a flowery meadow, at the clapping of the white wings of a chorus of encircling swans. We shall endeavour, another week, to realize this awaking.
IS Hawes a swan? a black (letter) swan? since we promised a week ago to speak of swans in connexion with the sixteenth century? Certain voices will "say nay, say nay," and already, and without our provocation, he seems to us unjustly depreciated. Warton was called "the indulgent historian of our poetry," for being so kind as to discover "one fine line" in him! What name must the over-kind have, in whose susceptible memories whole passages stand up erect, claiming the epithet or the like of the epithet, – and that less as the largesse of the indulgent that the debt of the just? Yet Langlande's Piers Plowman, and Chaucer's House of Fame, and Lydgate's Temple of Glasse, and the Pastyme of Plesure, by Stephen Hawes, are the four columnar marbles, the four allegorical poems, on whose foundation is exalted into light the great allegorical poem of the world, Spenser's Faery Queen. There was a force of suggestion which preceded Sackville's, and Hawes uttered it. His work is very grave for a pastime, being a course of instruction upon the seven sciences, the trivium and quadrivium of the schools; whereby Grand Amour, scholar and hero, wooing and winning Belle Pucelle, marries her according to the "lex ecclesia," is happy "all the rest of his life" by the lex of all matrimonial romances, – and at leisure and in old age, dies by the lex natura. He tells his own story quite to an end, including the particulars of his funeral and epitaph; and is considerate enough to leave the reader in full assurance of his posthumous reputation. And now let those who smile at the design dismiss their levity before the poet's utterance: –
O mortall folke, you may beholde and see
Howe I lye here, sometime a mighty knight.
The ende of joye and all prosperitie
Is death at last thorough his course and might.
After the day there cometh the dark night,
For though the day appear ever so long,
At last the bell ringeth to even song.
– it "ringeth" in our ear with a soft and solemn music to which the soul is prodigal of echoes. We may answer for the poetic faculty of its "maker." He is, in fact, not merely ingenious and fanciful, but abounds – the word, with an allowance for the unhappiness of his subject, is scarcely too strong, – with passages of thoughtful sweetness and cheerful tenderness, at which we are constrained to smile and sigh, and both for "pastyme."
Was never payne but it had joye at last
In the fayre morrow.
There is a lovely cadence! And then Amour's courtship of his "swete ladie" – a "cynosure" before Milton's! – conducted as simply, yet touchingly, as if he were innocent of the seven deadly sciences, and knew no more of "the Ladye Grammere" than might become a troubadour: –
O swete ladie, the true and perfect star
Of my true heart! Oh, take ye now pitie!
Think on my payne which am tofore you here, –
With your swete eyes behold you me, and see
How thought and woe by great extremitie,
Hath changed my colour into pale and wan!
It was not so when I to love began.
The date assigned to this Pastyme of Plesure is 1506, some fifty years before the birth of Spenser. Whether it was written in vain for Spenser, judge ye! To the present generation it is covered deep with the dust of more than three centuries, and few tongues ask above the place, – "what lies here?"
Barclay is our next swan – and verily might be mistaken, in any sort taken, by naturalists, for a crow. He is our first writer of eclogues, the translator of the 'Ship of Fools,' and a thinker of his own thoughts with sufficient intrepidity.
Skelton "floats double swan and shadow," as poet laureate of the university of Oxford, and "royal orator" of Henry VII. He presents a strange specimen of a court-poet, and if, as Erasmus says, "Britannicarum literarum lumen" at the same time, – the light is a pitchy torchlight, wild and rough. Yet we do not despise Skelton: despise him? it were easier to hate. The man is very strong – he triumphs, foams, is rabid, in the sense of strength – he mesmerizes our souls with the sense of strength – it is as easy to despise a wild beast in a forest, as John Skelton, poet laureate. He is as like a wild beast, as a poet laureate can be. In his wonderful dominion over language, he tears at it, as with teeth and paws, ravenously, savagely: devastating rather than creating, dominant rather for liberty than for dignity. It is the very sans-culottism of eloquence – the oratory of a Silenus drunk with anger only! Mark him as the satyr of poets! fear him as the Juvenal of satyrs! and watch him with his rugged, rapid, picturesque savageness, his "breathless rhymes," to use the fit phrase of the satirist Hall, or –
His rhymes all ragged,
Tattered, and jagged,
to use his own, – climbing the high trees of Delphi, and pelting from thence his victims underneath, whether priest or cardinal, with rough-rinded apples! And then ask, could he write otherwise than so? The answer is this opening to his poem of the 'Bouge of Court,' and the impression inevitable, of the serious sense of beauty and harmony to which it gives evidence.
In autumn when the sun in virgine,
By radiant heat enripened hath our corne,
When Luna, full of mutabilitie,
As emperess, the diadem hath worne
Of our pole Arctic, smiling as in scorn
At our folie and our unstedfastnesse –
but our last word of Skelton must be, that we do not doubt his influence for good upon our language. He was a writer singularly fitted for beating out the knots of the cordage, and straining the lengths to extension; a rough worker at rough work. Strong, rough Skelton! We can no more deride him than my good lord cardinal could. If our critical eyebrows must motion contempt at somebody of the period, we choose Tusser, and his five hundred points of good husbandry and housewifery. Whatever we say of Tusser, no fear of harming a poet, –
Make ready a bin
For chaff to lie in,
and there may be room therein, in compliment to the author of the proposition, for his own verses.
Lord Surrey passes as the tuner of our English nearly up to its present pitch of delicacy and smoothness; and we admit that he had a melody in his thoughts which they dared not disobey. That he is, as has been alleged by a chief critic, "our first metrical writer," lies not in our creed; and even Turberville's more measured praise, –
Our mother tongue by him hath got such light,
That ruder speche thereby is banisht qwyht, –
we have difficulty in accepting. We venture to be of opinion that he did not belong to that order of master-minds, with whom transitions originate, although qualified, by the quickness of a yielding grace, to assist effectually a transitional movement. There are names which catch the proverbs of praise as a hedge-thorn catches sheep's wool, by position and approximation rather than adaptitude: and this name is of them. Yet it is a high name. His poetry makes the ear lean to it, it is so sweet and low; the English he made it of, being ready to be sweet, and falling ripe in sweetness into other hands than his. For the poems of his friend, Sir Thomas Wyatt, have more thought, freedom, and variety, more general earnestness, more of the attributes of masterdom than Lord Surrey's; while it were vain to reproach for lack of melody the writer of that loveliest lyric, 'My lute, be still.' And Wyatt is various in metres, and the first songwriter (that praise we must secure to him) of his generation. For the rest, there is an inequality in the structure of his verses, which is very striking and observable in Surrey himself: as if the language, consciously insecure in her position, were balancing her accentual being and the forms of her pronunciation, half giddily, on the very turning point of transition. Take from Wyatt such a stanza as this, for instance, –
The long love that in my thoughts I harbour,
And in my heart doth keep his residence,
Into my face presseth with bold pretence,
And there campeth, displaying his banner.
and oppose to it the next example, polished as Pope, –
But I am here in Kent and Christendom,
Among the Muses where I read and rhyme;
Where, if thou list, mine own John Poins, to come,
Thou shalt be judge how I do spend my time.
It is well to mark Wyatt as a leader in the art of didactic poetic composition under the epistolary form, "sternly milde" (as Surrey said of his countenance), in the leaning toward satire. It is very well to mark many of his songs as of exceeding beauty, and as preserving clear their touching simplicity from that plague of over curious conceits which infest his writings generally. That was the plague of Italian literature transmitted by contagion, together with better things – together with the love of love-lore, and the sonnet structure, the summer-bower for one fair thought, delighted in and naturalized in England by Wyatt and Surrey. For the latter, –
From Tuscane came his ladye's worthy race:
and his Muse as well as his Geraldine. Drops from Plato's cup, passing through Petrarch's, not merely perfumed and coloured but diluted by the medium, we find in Surrey's cup also. We must not underpraise Surrey to balance the overpraise we murmur at. Denying him supremacy as a reformer, the denial of his poetic nobleness is far from us. We attribute to him the chivalry of the light ages – we call him a scholastic troubadour. The longest and most beautiful of his poems ("describing the lover's whole state") was a memory in the mind of Milton when he wrote his Allegro. He has that measure of pathos whose expression is no gesture of passion, but the skilful fingering on a well-tuned lute. He affects us at worst not painfully, and
With easie sighs such as folks draw in love.
He wrote the first English blank verse, in his translation of two books of the Æneid. He leads, in seeming, to the ear of the world, and by predestination of "popular breath," that little choral swan-chant which, swelled by Wyatt, Vaux, Bryan, and others, brake the common air in the days of the eighth Henry. And he fulfilled in sorrow his awarded fate as a poet – his sun going down at noon! – and the cleft head, with its fair youthful curls, testifying like that fabled head of Orpheus, to the music of the living tongue!
Sackville, Lord Dorset, takes up the new blank verse from the lips of Surrey, and turns it to its right use of tragedy. We cannot say that he does for it much more. His 'Gorboduc,' with some twenty years between it and Shakspeare, is farther from the true drama in versification and all the rest, than 'Gammer Gurton' is from 'Gorboduc.' Sackville's blank verse, like Lord Surrey's before him, is only heroic verse without rhyme, – and we must say so in relation to Gascoigne, who wrote the second blank verse tragedy, the 'Jocasta,' and the first blank verse original poem, 'The Stele Glass.' The secret of the blank verse of Shakspeare, and Fletcher, and Milton, did not dwell with them! the arched cadence, with its artistic key-stone and underflood of broad continuous sound, was never achieved nor attempted by its first builders. We sometimes whisper in our silence that Marlowe's "brave sublunary" instincts should have groped that way. But no! Chaucer had more sense of music in the pause than Marlowe had. Marlowe's rhythm is not, indeed, hard, and stiff, and uniform, like the sentences of 'Gorboduc,' as if the pattern one had been cut in boxwood: there is a difference between uniformity and monotony, and he found it; his cadence revolves like a wheel, progressively, if slowly and heavily, and with an orbicular grandeur of unbroken and unvaried music.
It remains to us to speak of the work by which Sackville is better known than by 'Gorboduc,' – the 'Mirror for Magistrates.' The design of it has been strangely praised, seeing that whatever that peculiar merit were, Lydgate's 'Fall of Princes' certainly cast the shadow before. But Sackville's commencement of the execution proved the master's hand; and that the great canvas fell abandoned to the blurring brushes of inadequate disciples, was an ill-fortune compensated adequately by the honour attributed to the Induction – of inducing a nobler genius than his own, even Spenser's, to a nobler labour. We cannot doubt the influence of that Induction. Its colossal figures, in high allegorical relief, were exactly adapted to impress the outspread fancy of the most sensitive of poets. A yew-tree cannot stand at noon in an open pleasaunce without throwing the outline of its branches on the broad and sunny grass. Still, admitting the suggestion in its fulness nothing can differ more than the allegorical results of the several geniuses of Lord Dorset and Spenser. Tear-drop and dew-drop, respond more similarly to analysis – or morbid grief and ideal joy. Sackville stands close wrapt in the "blanket of his dark," and will not drop his mantle for the sun. Spenser's business is with the lights of the world, and the lights beyond the world.
But this Sackville, this Earl of Dorset, ("Oh a fair earl was he !") stands too low for admeasurement with Spenser: and we must look back, if covetous of comparisons, to some one of a loftier and more kingly stature. We must look back far, and stop at Chaucer. Spenser, and Chaucer do naturally remind us of each other, they two being the most cheerful-hearted of the poets – with whom cheerfulness, as an attribute of poetry, is scarcely a common gift. But the world will be upon us! The world moralizes of late and in its fashion, upon the immorality of mournful poems, upon the criminality of "melodious tears," upon the morbidness of the sorrows of poets, – because Lord Byron was morbidly sorrowful, and because a crowd of his ephemeral imitators hung their heads all on one side and were insincerely sorrowful. The fact, however, has been, apart from Lord Byron and his disciples, that the "αι αι" of Apollo's flower is vocally sad in the prevailing majority of poetical compositions. The philosophy is, perhaps, that the poetic temperament, half way between the light of the ideal and the darkness of the real, and rendered by each more sensitive to the other, and unable, without a struggle, to pass out clear and calm into either, bears the impress of the necessary conflict in dust and blood! The philosophy may be, that only the stronger spirits do accomplish this victory, having lordship over their own genius – whether they accomplish it by looking bravely to the good ends of evil things, which is the practical ideal, and possible for all men in a measure – or by abstracting the inward sense from sensual things and their influences, which is subjectivity perfected – or by glorifying sensual things with the inward sense, which is objectivity transfigured – or by attaining to the highest vision of the idealist, which is subjectivity turned outward into an actual objectivity.
To the last triumph, Shakspeare attained; but Chaucer and Spenser fulfilled their destiny and grew to their mutual likeness as cheerful poets, by certain of the former processes. They two are alike in their cheerfulness, yet are their cheerfulnesses most unlike. Each poet laughs: yet their laughters ring with as far a difference as the sheep-bell on the hill and the joy-bell in the city. Each is earnest in his gladness: each active in persuading you of it. You are persuaded, and hold each for a cheerful man. The whole difference is, that Chaucer has a cheerful humanity: Spenser, a cheerful ideality. One rejoices walking on the sunny side of the street: the other, walking out of the street in a way of his own, kept green by a blessed vision. One uses the adroitness of his fancy by distilling out of the visible universe her occult smiles: the other, by fleeing beyond the possible frown, the occasions of natural ills, to that "cave of cloud" where he may smile safely to himself. One holds festival with men – seldom so coarse and loud indeed, as to startle the deer from their green covert at Woodstock – or with homely Nature and her "douce Marguerite" low in the grasses – the other adopts for his playfellows, imaginary or spiritual existences, and will not say a word to Nature herself, unless it please her to dress for his masque and speak daintily sweet and rare like a spirit. The human heart of one utters oracles – the imagination of the other speaks for his heart, and we miss no prophecy. For music, we praised Chaucer's, and not only as Dryden did, for "a Scotch tune." But never issued there from lip or instrument, or the tuned causes of nature, more lovely sound than we gather from our Spenser's Art. His mouth is vowed away from the very possibilities of harshness. Right leans to wrong in its excess. His rhythm is the continuity of melody, not harmony, because too smooth for modulation – because "by his vow" he dares not touch a discord for the sake of consummating a harmony. It is the singing of an angel in a dream: it has not enough of contrary for waking music. Of his great poem we may say, that we miss no humanity in it, because we make a new humanity out of it and are satisfied in our human hearts – a new humanity vivified by the poet's life, moving in happy measure to the chanting of his thoughts, and upon ground supernaturally beautified by his sense of the beautiful. As an allegory, it enchants us away from its own purposes. Una is Una to us; and Sans Foy is a traitor, and Errour is "an ugly monster," with a "tayle;" and we thank nobody in the world, not even Spenser, for trying to prove it otherwise. Do we dispraise an allegorical poem by throwing off its allegory? we trow not. Probably, certainly to our impression, the highest triumph of an allegory, from this of the 'Faery Queen' down to the 'Pilgrim's Progress,' is the abnegation of itself.
Oh those days of Elizabeth! We call them the days of Elizabeth, but the glory fell over the ridge, in illumination of the half century beyond those days of Elizabeth! Full were they of poets as the summer-days are of birds, –
No branch on which a fine bird did not sit,
No bird but his sweet song did shrilly sing,
No song but did contayne a lovely dit.
We hear of the dramatists, and shall speak of them presently; but the lyric singers were yet more numerous, – there were singers in every class. Never since the first nightingale brake voice in Eden, arose such a jubilee-concert – never before nor since has such a crowd of true poets uttered true poetic speech in one day! Not in England evermore! Not in Greece, that we know. Not in Rome, by what we know. Talk of their Augustan era – we will not talk of it, lest we desecrate our own of Elizabeth. The latter was rightly pre-figured by our figure of the chorus of swans. It was besides the milky way of poetry: it was the miracle-age of poetical history. We may fancy that the master-souls of Shakspeare and Spenser, breathing, stirring in divine emotion, shot vibratory life through other souls in electric association! we may hear in fancy, one wind moving every leaf in a forest – one voice responded to by a thousand rock-echoes. Why, a common man walking through the earth in those days, grew a poet by position – even as a child's shadow cast upon a mountain slope is dilated to the aspect of a giant's.
If we, for our own parts, did enact a Briareus, we might count these poets on the fingers of our hundred hands, after the fashion of the poets of Queen Anne's time, counting their syllables. We do not talk of them as "faultless monsters," however wonderful in the multitude and verity of their gifts: their faults were numerous, too. Many poets of an excellent sweetness, thinking of poetry that, like love,
It was to be all made of fantasy!
fell poetry-sick, as they might fall love-sick, and knotted associations, far and free enough to girdle the earth withal, into true love-knots of quaintest devices. Many poets affected novelty rather than truth; and many attained to novelty rather by attitude than altitude, whether of thought or word. Worst of all, many were incompetent to Sir Philip Sidney's ordeal – the translation of their verses into prose – and would have perished utterly by that hot ploughshare. Still, the natural healthy eye turns toward the light, and the true calling of criticism remains the distinguishing of beauty. Love and honour to the poets of Elizabeth – honour and love to them all! Honour even to the fellow-workers with Sackville in the 'Mirror for Magistrates,' to Ferrers Churchyard, and others, who had their hand upon the ore if they did not clasp it! and to Warner, the poet of Albion's England, singing snatches of ballad pathos, while he worked for the most part heavily, too, with a bowed back as at a stiff soil – and to Gascoigne, reflecting beauty and light from his 'Stele Glass,' though his 'Fruites of War' are scarcely fruits from Parnassus – and to Daniel, tender and noble, and teaching, in his 'Musophilus,' the chivalry of poets, though in his 'Civil Wars,' somewhat too historical, as Drayton has written of him – and to Drayton, generous in the 'Polyolbion' of his poet-blessing on every hill and river through this fair England, and not eloquent in his heroical epistles, though somewhat tame and level in his 'Barons' Wars' – and to the two brother Fletchers, Giles and Phineas, authors of 'Christ's Victory' and 'The Purple Island,' for whom the Muse's kiss followed close upon the mother's, gifting their lips with no vulgar music and their house with that noble kinsman, Fletcher the dramatist! Honour, too, to Davies, who "reasoned in verse" with a strong mind and strong enunciation, though he wrote one poem on the Soul and another on Dancing, and concentrated the diverging rays of intellect and folly in his sonnets on the reigning Astræa – and to Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke, who had deep thoughts enough to accomplish ten poets of these degenerate days, though because of some obscurity in their expression you would find some twenty critics "full of oaths" by the pyramids, that they all meant nought – and to Chamberlayne, picturesque, imaginative, earnest (by no means dramatic) in his poetic romance of 'Pharonnida,' though accumulative to excess of figures, and pedantic in such verbal learning as "entheon charms," the "catagraph" of a picture, the exagitations and congestions of elements, et sic omnia! – to Chalkhill, wrapt – even bound – " in soft Lydian airs," till himself, as well as his Clearchus and Thealma, fall asleep in involutions of harmony – and to Browne, something languid in his 'Britannia's Pastorals,' by sitting in the sun with Guarini and Marini, and "perplext in the extreme" by a thousand images and sounds of beauty calling him across the dewy fields – and to Wither, author of the 'Shepherd's Hunting' and how much else? Wither, who wrote of poetry like a poet, and in return has been dishonoured and misprised by some of his own kind! – a true sincere poet of blessed oracles! Honour, love, and praise to him and all! May pardon come to us from the unnamed.
Honour also to the translators of poems – to such as Chapman and Sylvester – great hearts, interpreters of great hearts, and afterwards worthily thanked by the Miltons, and Popes, and Keats's, for their gift of greatness to the language of their England.
Honour to the satirists! – to Marston, who struck boldly and coarsely at an offence from the same level with the offender – to Hall, preserving his own elevation, and flashing downwardly those thick lightnings in which we smell the sulphur – and to Donne, whose instinct to beauty overcame the resolution of his satiric humour.
Honour, again, to the singers of brief poems, to the lyrists and sonnetteers! O Shakspeare, let thy name rest gently among them, perfuming the place. We "swear" that these sonnets and songs do verily breathe, "not of themselves, but thee;" and we recognize and bless them as short sighs from thy large poetic heart, burdened with diviner inspiration! O rare Ben Jonson, let us have thy songs, rounded each with a spherical thought, and the lyrics from thy masques alive with learned fantasy, and thine epigrams keen and quaint, and thy noble epitaphs, under which the dead seem stirring! Fletcher, thou shalt be with us – prophet of Comus and Penseroso! giddy with inhalation from the fount of the beautiful, speaking out wildly thought upon thought, measure upon measure, as the bird sings, because his own voice is lovely to him. Sidney, true knight and fantastic poet, whose soul did too curiously inquire the fashion of the beautiful – the fashion rather than the secret! but left us in one line, the completest "Ars poetica" extant, –
"Foole, sayde my Muse to mee, looke in thine heart, and write."
Thy name be famous in all England and Arcadia! And Raleigh, tender and strong, of voice sweet enough to answer that 'Passionate Shepherd,' yet trumpet-shrill to speak the "Soul's errand" thrilling the depths of our own! having honour and suffering as became a poet, from the foot of the Lady of England light upon his cloak, to the cloak of his executioner wrapping redly his breathless corpse. Marlowe, we must not forget his 'Shepherd' in his tragedies: and 'Come live with me' sounds passionately still through the dead cold centuries. And Drummond, the over-praised and under-praised, – a passive poet, if we may use the phraseology – who was not careful to achieve greatness, but whose natural pulses beat music, and with whom the consciousness of life was the sentiment of beauty. And Lyly, shriven from the sins of his Euphues, with a quaint grace in his songs; and Donne, who takes his place naturally in this new class, having a dumb angel, and knowing more noble poetry than he articulates. Herrick, the Ariel of poets, sucking "where the bee sucks" from the rose-heart of nature, and reproducing the fragrance idealized; and Carew, using all such fragrance as a courtly essence, with less of self-abandonment and more of artificial application; and Herbert, with his face as the face of a spirit, dimly bright; and fantastic Quarles, in rude and graphic gesticulation, expounding verity and glory; and Breton, and Turberville, and Lodge, and Hall (not the satirist), and all the hundred swans, nameless, or too numerous to be named, of that Cayster of the rolling time.
Then, high in the miraculous climax, come the dramatists – from whose sinews was knit the overcoming strength of our literature over all the nations of the world. "The drama is the executive of literature," said De Stael: and the Greek's "action, action, action," we shall not miss in our drama. Honour to the dramatists! as honour from them! Shakspeare is our security that we shall say so less briefly soon.
WE must take a few steps backward for position's sake, and then be satisfied with a rapid glance at the Drama. From the days of Norman William, the representations called Mysteries and Moralities had come and gone without a visible poet; and Skelton appears before us almost the first English claimant of a dramatic reputation, with the authorship of the interludes of 'Magnificence' and the 'Nigromansir.' The latter is chiefly famous for Warton's affirmation of having held it in his hands, giving courteous occasion to Ritson's denial of its existence: and our own palms having never been crossed by the silver of either, we cannot prophesy on the degree of individual honour involved in the literary claim. Bale, one of the eighth Henry's bishops, was an active composer of Moralities; and John Heywood, his royal jester and "author of that very merry interlude," called The Four P's, united in his merriment that caustic sense, with that lively ease, which has not been too common since in his accomplished dramatic posterity. Yet those who in the bewilderment of their admirations (or senses) attribute to John Heywood the 'Pinner of Wakefield,' are more obviously – we are sorely tempted to add more ridiculously – wrong, than those who attribute it to Shakspeare. The canon of Windsor's 'Ralph Royster Doyster,' and the Bishop of Bath and Wells' 'Gammer Gurton,' followed each other close into light, the earliest modern comedies, by the force of the "âme ecclesiastique." A little after came Ferrys, memorialized by Puttenham as "the principall man of his profession" (of poetry), and "of no lesse myrthe and felicitie than John Heywood, but of much more skille and magnificence in his meter." But seeing that even Oblivion forgot Ferrys, leaving his name and Puttenham's praise when she defaced his works, and seeing, too, the broad farcedom of the earlier, however episcopal writers, we find ourselves in an unwilling posture of recognition before Edwards, as the first extant regular dramatist of England. It is a pitiful beginning. The Four P's would be a more welcome A to us. They express more power with their inarticulate roughness, than does this Damon and Pythias, with its rhymed, loitering frigidity, or even than this Palamon and Arcite, in which the sound of the hunting horn cast into ecstasy the too gracious soul of Queen Elizabeth. But Sir John Davies's divine Astræa was, at that grey dawn of her day, ignorant of greater poets; and we ("happy in this") go on toward them. After Edwards, behold Sackville with that 'Gorboduc' we have named, the first blank verse tragedy we can name, praised by Sidney for its exemplary preservation of the unities and for "climbing to the height of Seneca his stile," – tight-fitting praise, considering that the composition is high enough to account for its snow, and cold enough to emulate the Roman's. And after Sackville behold the first dramatic geniuses, in juxtaposition with the first dramatists – Peele, and Kyd, mad as his own Hieronimo, (we will grant it to such critics as are too utterly in their senses), only –
When he is mad,
Then, methinks, he is a brave fellow!
and then methinks, and by such madness, the possibility of a Shakspeare was revealed. Kyd's blank verse is probably the first breaking of the true soil; and certainly far better and more dramatic than Marlowe's is, – crowned poet as the latter stands before us – poet of the English Faustus, which we wilt not talk of against the German, nor set up its grand, luxurious, melancholy devil against Goethe's subtle, biting, Voltairish devil, each being devil after its kind, – the poet of the Jew which Shakspeare drew (not), yet a true Jew, "with a berde," – and the poet of the first historical drama, – since the 'Gorboduc' scarcely can be called one. Marlowe was more essentially a poet than a dramatist; and if the remark appear self-evident and universally applicable, we will take its reverse in Kyd, who was more essentially, with all his dramatic faults, a dramatist than a poet. Passing from the sound of the elemental monotonies of the rhythm of Marlowe, we cannot pause before Nash and Greene to distinguish their characteristics. It is enough to name these names of gifted dramatists, who lived, or at least wrote, rather before Shakspeare than with him, and helped to make him credible. Through them, like a lens, we behold his light. Of them we conjecture – these are the blind elements working before the earthquake; – before the great "Shakescene," as Greene said when he was cross! And we may say when we are fanciful, these are the experiments of Nature, made in her solution of the problem of how much deathless poetry will agree with how much mortal clay! – these are the potsherd vessels half filled, and failing at last, – until up to the edge of one, the liquid inspiration rose and bubbled in hot beads, to quench the thirsty lips of the world!
It is hard to speak of Shakspeare, – these measures of the statures of common poets fall from our hands when we seek to measure him: it is harder to praise him. Like the tall plane-tree which Xerxes found standing in the midst of an open country, and honoured inappropriately with his "barbaric pomp," with bracelets, and chains, and rings suspended on its branches, so has it been with Shakspeare. A thousand critics have commended him with praises as unsuitable as a gold ring to a plane-tree. A thousand hearts have gone out to him, carrying necklaces. Some have discovered that he individualized, and some that he generalized, and some that he subtilized – almost trans-transcendentally. Some would have it that he was a wild genius, sowing wild oats and stealing deer to the end, with no more judgment forsooth than "youth the hare"; and some, that his very pulses beat by that critical law of art in which he was blameless! – some, that all his study was in his horn-book, and not much of that; and some, that he was as learned a polyglott as ever had been dull but for Babel! – some, that his own ideal burned stedfastly within his own fixed contemplations, unstirred by breath from without; and some, that he wrote for the gold on his palm and the "rank popular breath" in his nostrils, apart from consciousness of greatness and desire of remembrance. If the opinions prove nothing, their contradictions prove the exaltation of the object; their contradictions are praise. For men differ about things above their reach, not within it; – about the mountains in the moon, not Primrose Hill: and more than seven cities of men have differed in their talk about Homer also! Homer, also, was convicted of indiscreet nodding; and Homer, also, had no manner of judgment! and the Ars Poetica people could not abide his bad taste! And we find another analogy. We, who have no leaning to the popular cant of Romanticism and Classicism, and believe the old Greek BEAUTY to be both new and old, and as alive and not more grey in Webster's 'Duchess of Malfy' than in Æschylus's 'Eumenides,' do reverence this Homer and this Shakspeare as the colossal borderers of the two intellectual departments of the world's age, – do behold from their feet the antique and modern literatures sweep outwardly away, and conclude, that whereas the Greek bore in his depth the seed and prophecy of all the Hellenic and Roman poets, so did Shakspeare "whose seed was in himself " also, those of a later generation!
For the rest we must speak briefly of Shakspeare, and very weakly too, except for love. That he was a great natural genius nobody, we believe, has doubted – the fact has passed with the cheer of mankind; but that he was a great artist the majority has doubted. Yet Nature and Art cannot be reasoned apart into antagonistic principles. Nature is God's art – the accomplishment of a spiritual significance hidden in a sensible symbol. Poetic art (man's) looks past the symbol with a divine guess and reach of soul into the mystery of the significance, – disclosing from the analysis of the visible things, the synthesis or unity of the ideal, – and expounds like symbol and like significance out of the infinite of God's doing into the finite of man's comprehending. Art lives by Nature, and not the bare mimetic life generally attributed to Art: she does not imitate, she expounds. Interpres naturæ – is the poet-artist; and the poet wisest in nature is the most artistic poet! and thus our Shakspeare passes to the presidency unquestioned, as the greatest artist in the world. We believe in his judgment as in his genius. We believe in his learning, both of books and men, and hills and valleys: in his grammars and dictionaries we do not believe. In his philosophy of language we believe absolutely – in his Babel-learning, not at all. We believe reverently in the miracle of his variety; and it is observable that we become aware of it less by the numerousness of his persons and their positions, than by the depth of the least of either, – by the sense of visibility beyond what we see, as in nature. Our creed goes on to declare him most passionate and most rational – of an emotion which casts us into thought, of a reason which leaves us open to emotion! most grave and most gay – while we scarcely can guess that the man Shakspeare is grave or gay, because he interposes between ourselves and his personality the whole breadth and length of his ideality. His associative faculty, – the wit's faculty besides the poet's, – for him who was both wit and poet, shed sparks like an electric wire. He was wise in the world, having studied it in his heart; what is called "the knowledge of the world" being just the knowledge of one heart, and certain exterior symbols. What else? What otherwise could he, the young transgressor of Sir Thomas Lucy's fences, new from Stratford and the Avon, close in theatric London, have seen, or touched, or handled, of the Hamlets and Lears and Othellos, that he should draw them? "How can I take portraits," said Marmontel, in a similar inexperience, "before I have beheld faces?" Voltaire embraced him, in reply. Well applauded, Voltaire. It was a not for Marmontel's utterance, and Voltaire's praise – for Marmontel, not for Shakspeare! Every being is his own centre to the universe, and in himself must one foot of the compasses be fixed to attain to any measurement – nay, every being is his own mirror to the universe. Shakspeare wrote from within – the beautiful; and we recognize from within – the true. He is universal, because he is individual. And without any prejudice of admiration, we may go on to account his faults to be the proofs of his power – the cloud of dust cast up by the multitude of the chariots. The activity of his associative faculty is occasionally morbid: in the abundance of his winged thoughts, the locust flies with the bee, and the ground is dark with the shadow of them. Take faults, take excellencies, it is impossible to characterize this Shakspeare by an epithet – have we heard the remark before, that it should sound so obvious? We say of Corneille, the noble; of Racine, the tender; of Æschylus, the terrible; of Sophocles, the perfect; but not one of these words, not one appropriately descriptive epithet, can we attach to Shakspeare without a conscious recoil. Shakspeare! the name is the description.
He is the most wonderful artist in blank verse of all in England, and almost the earliest. We do not say that he first broke the enchaining monotony, of which the Sackvilles and the Marlowes left us complaining; because the versification of Hieronimo ran at its own strong will, and the Pinner of Wakefield may have preceded his first plays. We do not even say what we might, that his hand first proved the compass and infinite modulation of the new instrument; but we do say, that it never answered another hand as it answered his. We do say, this fingering was never learned of himself by another. From Massinger's more resonant majesty, from even Fletcher's more numerous and artful cadences, we turn back to his artlessness of art, to his singular and supreme estate as a versificater. Often when he is at the sweetest, his words are poor monosyllables, his pauses frequent to brokenness, and the structure of the several lines less varied than was taught after Fletcher's masterdom; but the whole results in an ineffable charming of the ear which we acquiesce in without seeking its cause, a happy mystery of music.
This is little for Shakspeare; yet so much for the place, that we are forced into brevities for our observations which succeed. We chronicle only the names of Chapman, Dekker, Webster, Turneur, Randolph, Middleton, and Thomas Heywood, although great names, and worthy, it is not too much to add, of Shakspeare's brotherhood. Many besides lean from our memory to the paper, but we put them away reverently. It was the age of the dramatists – the age of strong passionate men, scattering on every side their good and evil oracles of vehement humanity, and extenuating no thought in its word: and in that age, "to write like a man," was a deed accomplished by many besides him of whom it was spoken, Jonson's "son Cartwright."
At Jonson's name we stop perforce, and do salutation in the dust to the impress of that "learned sock." He was a learned man, as everybody knows; and as everybody does not believe, not the worse for his learning. His material, brought laboriously from east and west, is wrapt in a flame of his own. If the elasticity and abandonment of Shakspeare and of certain of Shakspeare's brothers, are not found in his writings, the reason of the defects need not be sought out in his readings. His genius, high and verdant as it grew, yet belonged to the hard woods: it was lance-wood rather than bow-wood – a genius rather noble than graceful – eloquent, with a certain severity and emphasis of enunciation. It would have been the same if he, too, had known "little Latin and lesse Greek." There was a dash of the rhetorical in his dramatic. Not that we deny him empire over the passions: his heart had rhetoric as well as his understanding, and he wrote us a Sad Shepherd, as well as a Catiline. His versification heaves heavily with thought. For his comic powers, let 'Volpone' and 'The Alchymist' attest them with that unextinguishable laughter which is the laughter of gods or poets still more than of the wits' coffee-house. Was it "done at the Mermaid" – was it ever fancied there, that "rare Ben Jonson" should be called a pedantic poet? Nay, but only a scholastic one.
And Beaumont and Fletcher, the Castor and Pollux of this starry poetic sphere, ('lucida sidera!') our silence shall not cover them ; nor will we put asunder, in our speech, the names which friendship and poetry joined together, nor distinguish by a laboured analysis, the vivacity of one from the solidity of the other; seeing that men who, according to tradition, lived in one house, and wore one cloak, and wrote on one page, may well, by the sanctity of that one grave they have also in common, maintain for ever beyond it the unity they coveted. The characteristics of these writers stand out in a softened light from the deep tragic background of the times. We may liken them to Shakspeare in one mood of his mind, because there are few classes of beauty, the type or likeness of which is not discoverable in Shakspeare. From the rest, they stand out contrastingly, as the Apollo of the later Greek sculpture school, – too graceful for divinity and too vivacious for marble, – placed in a company of the antiquer statues with their grand blind look of the almightiness of repose. We cannot say of these poets as of the rest, "they write all like men:" we cannot think they write like women either – perhaps they write a little like centaurs. We are of opinion in any way, that the grace is more obvious than the strength; and there may be something centauresque and of twofold nature in their rushing mutabilities, and changes on passion and weakness. Clearest of all is that they wrote like poets, and in a versification most surpassingly musical though liberal, as if music served them for love's sake, unbound! They had an excellent genius, but not a strong enough invention to include judgment; judgment being the consistency of invention, and consistency always, whether in morals or literature, depending upon strength. We do not, in fact, find in them any perfect and covenanted whole – we do not find it in character, or in plot, or in composition; and lamenting the defect on many grounds we do so on this chief one, that their good is just good, their evil just evil, unredeemed into good like Shakspeare's and Nature's evil by unity of design, but, lying apart, a willingly chosen, through and through evil – and "by this time it stinketh." If other results are less lamentable they are no less fatal. The mirror which these poets hold up to us is vexed with a thousand cracks, and everything visible is in fragments. Their conceptions all tremble on a peradventure – "peradventure they shall do well:" there is no royal absolute will that they should do well – the poets are less kings than workmen. And being workmen they are weak – the moulds fall from their hands – are clutched with a spasm or fall with a faintness. After which querulousness, we shall leave the question as to whether their tragic or comic powers be put to more exquisite use – not for solution, nor for doubt, (since we hold fast an opinion,) but for praise the most rarely appropriate or possible.
One passing word of Ford, the pathetic! – for he may wear on his sleeve the epithet of Euripides, and no daw peck there. Most tender is he, yet not to feebleness – most mournful, yet not to languor; yet we like to hear the warhorse leaps of Dekker on the same tragic ground with him, producing at once contrast and completeness. Ungrateful thought! – the 'Witch of Edmonton' bewitched us to it. Ford can fill the ear and soul singly, with the trumpet-note of his pathos; and in its pauses you shall hear the murmuring voices of nature, – such a nightingale, for instance, as never sang on a common night. Then that death scene in the 'Broken Heart'! who has equalled that? It is single in the drama, – the tragic of tragedy, and the sublime of grief. A word, too, of Massinger, who writes all like a giant – a dry-eyed giant. He is too ostentatiously strong for flexibility, and too heavy for rapidity, and monotonous through his perpetual final trochee; his gesture and enunciation are slow and majestic. And another word of Shirley, an inferior writer, though touched, to our fancy, with something of a finer ray, and closing, in worthy purple, the procession of the Elizabethan men. Shirley is the last dramatist, Valete et plaudite, o posteri.
Standing in his traces, and looking backward and before, we become aware of the distinct demarcations of five eras of English poetry: the first, the Chaucerian, although we might call it Chaucer; the second, the Elizabethan; the third, which culminates in Cowley; the fourth, in Dryden and the French school; the fifth, the return to nature in Cowper and his successors of our day. These five rings mark the age of the fair and stingless serpent we are impelled, like the ancient mariner, to bless – but not "unaware." "Ah benedicte!" we bless her so, out of our Chaucer's rubric, softly, but with a plaintiveness of pleasure! For when the last echo of the Elizabethan harmonies had died away with Shirley's footsteps, in the twilight of that golden day; when Habington and Lovelace, and every last bird before nightfall was dumb, and Crashaw's fine rapture, holy as a summer sense of silence, left us to the stars – the first voices startling the thinker from his reverting thoughts, are verily of another spirit. The voices are eloquent enough, thoughtful enough, fanciful enough; but something is defective. Can any one suffer, as an experimental reader, the transition between the second and third periods, without feeling that something is defective? What is so? And who dares to guess that it may be INSPIRATION?
"POETRY is of too spiritual a nature," Mr. Campbell has observed, "to admit of its authors being exactly grouped by a Linnæan system of classification." Nevertheless, from those subtle influences which poets render and receive, and from other causes less obvious but no less operative, it has resulted even to ourselves in this slight survey of the poets of our country, that the signs used by us simply as signs of historical demarcation, have naturally fallen or risen into signs of poetical classification. The five eras we spoke of in a former paper, have each a characteristic as clear in poetry as in chronology; and a deeper gulf than an Anno Domini yawns betwixt an Elizabethan man and a man of that third era upon which we are entering. The change of the poetical characteristic was not, indeed, without gradation. The hands of the clock had been moving silently for a whole hour before the new one struck – and even in Davies, even in Drayton, we felt the cold foreshadow of a change. The word "sweetness," which presses into our sentences against the will of our rhetoric whenever we speak of Shakspeare ("sweetest Shakspeare") or his kin, we lose the taste of in the later waters – they are brackish with another age.
In what did the change consist? Practically and partially in the idol-worship of rhyme. Among the elder poets, the rhyme was only a felicitous adjunct, a musical accompaniment, the tinkling of a cymbal through the choral harmonies. You heard it across the changes of the pause, as an undertone of the chant, marking the time with an audible indistinctness, and catching occasionally and reflecting the full light of the emphasis of the sense in mutual elucidation. But the new practice endeavoured to identify in all possible cases the rhyme and what may be called the sentimental emphasis; securing the latter to the tenth rhyming syllable, and so dishonouring the emphasis of the sentiment into the base use of the marking of the time. And, not only by this unnatural provision did the emphasis minister to the rhyme, but the pause did so also. "Away with all pauses," – said the reformers, – "except the legitimate pause at the tenth rhyming syllable. O rhyme, live for ever! Rhyme alone take the incense from our altars, – tinkling cymbal alone be our music!" – And so arose, in dread insignificance, "the heart and impart men."
Moreover, the corruption of the versification was but a type of the change in the poetry itself, and sufficiently expressive. The accession to the throne of the poets, of the wits in the new current sense of the term, or of the beaux esprits – a term to be used the more readily because descriptive of the actual pestilential influence of French literature – was accompanied by the substitution of elegant thoughts for poetic conceptions ("elegant" alas! beginning to be the critical password) of adroit illustrations for beautiful images, of ingenuity for genius. Yet this third era is only the preparation for the fourth consummating one – the hesitation before the crime – we smell the blood through it in the bath-room! And our fancy grows hysterical, like poor Octavia, while the dismal extent of the "quantum mutatus" developes itself in detail.
"Waller's sweetness!" it is a needy antithesis to Denham's strength, – and, if anything beside, a sweetness as far removed from that which we have lately recognized, as the saccharine of the palate from the melodious of the ear. Will Saccharissa frown at our comparison from the high sphere of his verse? or will she, a happy "lady who can sleep when she pleases," please to oversleep our offence? It is certain that we but walk in her footsteps in our disdain of her poet, even if we disdain him – and most seriously we disown any such partaking of her "crueltie." Escaping from the first astonishment of an unhappy transition, and from what is still more vexing, those "base, common, and popular" critical voices, which, in and out of various "arts of poetry," have been pleased to fix upon this same transitional epoch as the genesis of excellence to our language and versification, we do not, we hope it of ourselves, undervalue Waller. There is a certain grace "beyond the reach of art," or rather beyond the destructive reach of his ideas of art, to which, we opine, if he had not been a courtier and a renegade, the lady Dorothea might have bent her courtly head unabashed, even as the Penshurst beeches did. We gladly acknowledge in him, as in Denham and other poets of the transition, an occasional remorseful recurrence by half lines and whole lines, or even a few lines together, to the poetic past. We will do anything but agree with Mr. Hallam, who, in his excellent and learned work on the Literature of Europe, has passed some singular judgments upon the poets, and none more startling than his comparison of Waller to Milton, on the ground of the sustenance of power. The crying truth is louder than Mr. Hallam, and cries, in spite of Fame, with whom poor Waller was an "enfant trouvé," an heir by chance, rather than merit, – that he is feeble poetically quite as surely as morally and politically, and that, so far from being an equal and sustained poet, he has not strength for unity even in his images, nor for continuity in his thoughts, nor for adequacy in his expression, nor for harmony in his versification. This is at least our strong and sustained impression of Edmund Waller.
With a less natural gift of poetry than Waller, Denham has not only more strength of purpose and language (an easy superiority), but some strength in the abstract: he puts forth rather a sinewy hand to the new structure of English versification. It is true, indeed, that in his only poem which survives to any competent popularity – his 'Cooper's Hill' – we may find him again and again, by an instinct to a better principle, receding to the old habit of the medial pause, instead of the would-be sufficiency of the final one. But, generally, he is true to his modern sect of the Pharisees; and he helps their prosperity otherwise by adopting that pharisaic fashion of setting forth, vaingloriously, a little virtue of thought and poetry in pointed and antithetic expression, which all the wits delighted in, from himself, a chief originator, to Pope, the perfecter. The famous lines, inheriting by entail a thousand critical admirations –
'Strong without rage, without o'erflowing full,'
and as Sydney Smith might put it, "a great many other things, without a great many other things," contain the germ and prophecy of the whole Queen Anne's generation. For the rest, we will be brief in our melancholy, and say no more of Denham than that he was a Dryden in small.
The genius of the new school was its anomaly, even Abraham Cowley. We have said nothing of "the metaphysical poets" because we disclaim the classification, and believe with Mr. Leigh Hunt, that every poet, inasmuch as he is a poet, is a metaphysician. In taking note, therefore, of this Cowley, who stands on the very vibratory soil of the transition, and stretches his faltering and protesting hands on either side to the old and to the new, let no one brand him for "metaphysics." He was a true poet, both by natural constitution and cultivation, but without the poet's heart. His admirers have compared him to Pindar – and, taking Pindar out of his rapture, they may do so still – he was a Pindar writing by métier rather than by verve. In rapidity and subtlety of the associative faculty, which, however, with him, moved circularly rather than onward, he was sufficiently Pindaric: but, as it is a fault in the Greek lyrist to leave his buoyancy to the tumultuous rush of his associations too unmisgivingly and entirely for the right reverence of Unity in Beauty, – so is it the crime of the English poet to commit coldly what the other permitted passively, and with a conscious volition, quick yet calm, calm when quickest, to command from the ends of the universe the associations of material sciences and spiritual philosophies. Quickness of the associative or suggestive faculty is common, we have had occasion to observe, to the wit (in the modern sense) and the poet – its application only, being of a reverse difference. Cowley confounded the application, and became a witty poet. The Elizabethan writers were inclined to a too curious illuminating of thought, by imagery. Cowley was coarsely curious: he went to the shambles for his chambers of imagery, and very often through the mud. All which faults appear to us attributable to his coldness of temperament, and his defectiveness in the instinct towards Beauty; to having the intellect only of a great poet, not the sensibility. His 'Davideis,' our first epic in point of time, has fine things in it. His translations, or rather paraphrases of Anacreon, are absolutely the most perfect of any English composition of their order. His other poems contain profuse material, in image and reflection, for the accomplishment of three poets, each greater than himself. He approached the beautiful and the true as closely as mere Fancy could; but that very same Fancy, unfixed by feeling, too often, in the next breath, approximated him to the hideous and the false. Noble thoughts are in Cowley – we say noble, and we might say sublime; but, while we speak, he falls below the first praise. Yet his influence was for good rather than for evil, by inciting to a struggle backward, a delay in the revolutionary movement: and this, although a wide gulf yawned between him and the former age, and his heart's impulse was not strong enough to cast him across it. For his actual influence, he lifts us up and casts us down – charms, and goes nigh to disgust us – does all but make us love and weep.
And then came "glorious John," with the whole fourth era in his arms; – and eloquent above the sons of men, to talk down, thunder down poetry as if it were an exhalation. Do we speak as if he were not a poet? nay, but we speak of the character of his influences! nay, but he was a poet – an excellent poet – in marble! and Phidias, with the sculpturesque ideal separated from his working tool, might have carved him. He was a poet without passion, just as Cowley was – but, then, Cowley lived by fancy, and that would have been poor living for John Dryden. Unlike Cowley, too, he had an earnestness which of itself was influential. He was inspired in his understanding and his senses only; but to the point of disenchanting the world most marvelously. He had a large soul for a man, containing sundry Queen Anne's men, one within another, like quartetto tables; but it was not a large soul for a poet, and it entertained the universe by potatoe patches. He established finally the reign of the literati for the reign of the poets – and the critics clapped their hands. He established finally the despotism of the final emphasis – and no one dared, in affecting criticism, to speak any more at all against a tinkling cymbal. And so, in distinctive succession to poetry and inspiration, began the new system of harmony "as by law established" – and so he translated Virgil not only into English but into Dryden; and so he was kind enough to translate Chaucer too, as an example, – made him a much finer speaker, and not, according to our doxy, so good a versifier – and cured the readers of the old "Knight's tale" of sundry of their tears! – and so he reasoned powerfully in verse – and threw into verse besides, the whole force of his strong sensual being; and so he wrote what has been called from generation to generation, down to the threshold of our days, "the best ode in the English language." To complete which successes, he thrust out nature with a fork; and for a long time, and in spite of Horace's prophecy, she never came back again. Do we deny our gratitude and his glory to glorious John because we speak thus? In nowise would we do it. He was a man greatly endowed; and our language and our literature remain, in certain respects, the greater for his greatness – more practical, more rapid, and with an air of mixed freedom and adroitness which we welcome as an addition to the various powers of either. With regard to his influence – and he was most influential upon poetry – we have spoken; and have the whole of the opening era from which to prove.
While we return upon our steps for a breathing moment, and pause before MILTON, – the consideration occurs to us that a person of historical ignorance in respect to this divine poet, would hesitate and be at a loss to which era of our poetry to attach him through the internal evidence of his works. He has not the tread of a contemporary of Dryden, – and Rochester's nothingness is a strange accompaniment to the voice of his greatness. Neither can it be quite predicated of him that he walks an Elizabethan man – there is a certain fine bloom or farina, rather felt than seen, upon the old poems, unrecognized upon his. But the love of his genius leant backward to those olden oracles: and it is pleasant to think that he was actually born before Shakspeare's death; that they two looked upwardly to the same daylight and stars; and that he might have stretched his baby arms ("animosus infans!") to the faint hazel eyes of the poet of poets. Let us think in anywise that he drew in some living subtle Shakspearian benediction, providing for greatness.
The Italian poets had "rained influence" on the Elizabethan "field of the cloth of gold;" and from the Italian poets as well as the classical sources and the elder English ones, did Milton accomplish his soul. Yet the poet Milton was not made by what he received; not even by what he loved. High above the current of poetical influences he held his own grand personality; and there never lived poet in any age (unless we assume ignorantly of Homer) more isolated in the contemporaneous world than he. He was not worked upon from out of it, nor did he work outwardly upon it. As Cromwell's secretary and Salmasius's antagonist, he had indeed an audience; but as a poet, a scant one; his music, like the spherical tune, being inaudible because too fine and high. It is almost awful to think of him issuing from the arena of controversy victorious and blind, – putting away from his dark brows the bloody laurel – left alone after the heat of the day by those for whom he had combated; and originating in that enforced dark quietude his epic vision for the inward sight of the unborn; so to avenge himself on the world's neglect by exacting from it an eternal future of reminiscence. The circumstances of the production of his great work are worthy in majesty of the poem itself; and the writer is the ideal to us of the majestic personality of a poet. He is the student, the deep thinker, the patriot, the believer, the thorough brave man, – breathing freely for truth and freedom under the leaden weights of his adversities – never reproaching God for his griefs by his despair – working in the chain, – praying without ceasing in the serenity of his sightless eyes, – and because the whole visible universe was swept away from betwixt them and the Creator, contemplating more intently the invisible infinite, and shaping all his thoughts to it in grander proportion! O noble Christian poet! Which is hardest? self-renunciation, and the sackcloth and the cave? or grief-renunciation, and the working on, on, under the stripe? He did what was hardest. He was Agonistes building up, instead of pulling down; and his high religious fortitude gave a character to his works. He stood in the midst of those whom we are forced to consider the corrupt versificators of his day, an iconoclast of their idol rhyme, and protesting practically against the sequestration of pauses. His lyrical poems, move they ever so softly, step loftily, and with something of an epic air. His sonnets are the first sonnets of a free rhythm – and this although Shakspeare and Spenser were sonnetteers. His 'Comus,' and 'Samson,' and 'Lycidas,' – how are we to praise them? His epic is the second to Homer's, and the first in sublime effects – a sense as of divine benediction flowing through it from end to end. Not that we compare, for a moment, Milton's genius with Homer's – but that CHRISTIANTY is in the poem besides Milton. If we hazard a remark which is not admiration, it shall be this – that with all his heights and breadths (which we may measure geometrically if we please from the 'Davideis' of Cowley), with all his rapt devotions and exaltations towards the highest of all, we do miss something – we, at least, who are writing, miss something – of what may be called, but rather metaphysically than theologically, spirituality. His spiritual personages are vast enough, but not rarified enough. They are humanities, enlarged, uplifted, transfigured – but no more. In the most spiritual of his spirits, there is a conscious, obvious, even ponderous, materialism. And hence comes the celestial gunpowder, and hence the clashing with swords, and hence the more continuous evil which we feel better than we describe, the thick atmosphere clouding the heights of the subject. And if anybody should retort, that complaining so we complain of Milton's humanity – we shake our heads. For Shakspeare also was a man; and our creed is, that the 'Midsummer Night's Dream' displays more of the fairyhood of fairies, than the 'Paradise Lost' does of the angelhood of angels. The example may serve the purpose of explaining our objection; both leaving us room for the one remark more – that Ben Jonson and John Milton, the most scholastic of our poets, brought out of their scholarship different gifts to our language; that Jonson brought more Greek, and Milton more Latin, – while the influences of the latter and greater poet were at once more slowly and more extensively effectual.
Butler was the contemporary of Milton: we confess a sort of continuous "innocent surprise" in the thought of it, however the craziness of our imagination may be in fault. We have stood by as witnesses while the great poet sanctified the visible earth with the oracle of his blindness; and are startled that a profane voice should be hardy enough to break the echo, and jest in the new consecrated temple. But this is rather a roundheaded than a longheaded way of adverting to poor Butler; who for all his gross injustice to the purer religionists, in the course of "flattering the vices and daubing the iniquities" of King Charles's court, does scarcely deserve, at our hands, either to be treated as a poet or punished for being a contemporary of the poet Milton. – Butler's business was the business of desecration, the exact reverse of a poet's; and by the admission of all the world his business is well done. His learning is various and extensive, and his fancy communicates to it its mobility. His wit has a gesture of authority, as if it might, if it pleased, be wisdom. His power over language, "tattered and ragged" like Skelton's, is as wonderful as his power over images. And if nobody can commend the design of his Hudibras, which is the English counterpart of Don Quixote – a more objectionable servility than an adaptation from a serious composition, in which case that humorous effect would have been increased by the travestie, which is actually injured and precisely in an inverse ratio, by the burlesque copy of the burlesque, – everybody must admit the force of the execution. When Prior attempted afterwards the same line of composition with his peculiar grace and airiness of diction – when Swift ground society into jests with a rougher turning of the wheel – still, then and since, has this Butler stood alone. He is the genius of his class – a natural enemy to poetry under the form of a poet: not a great man, but a powerful man.
WE return to the generation of Dryden and to Pope his inheritor – Pope, the perfecter, as we have already taken occasion to call him – who stood in the presence of his father Dryden, before that energetic soul; weary with its long literary work which was not always clean and noble, had uttered its last wisdom or foolishness through the organs of the body. Unfortunately, Pope had his advisers apart from his muses; and their counsel was "be correct." To be correct, therefore, to be great through correctness, was the end of his ambition, an aspiration scarcely more calculated for the production of noble poems than the philosophy of utilitarianism is for that of lofty virtues. Yet correctness seemed a virtue rare in the land; Dr. Johnson having crowned Lord Roscommon over Shakepeare's head, "the only correct writer before Addison!" The same critic predicated of Milton, that he could not cut figures upon cherrystones – Pope glorified correctness, and dedicated himself to cherrystones from first to last. A cherrystone was the apple of his eye.
Now we are not about to take up any popular cry against Pope; he has been overpraised and is underpraised; and, in the silence of our poetical experience, ourselves may confess personally to the guiltiness of either extremity. He was not a great poet; he meant to be a correct poet, and he was what he meant to be, according to his construction of the thing meant – there are few amongst us who fulfil so literally their ambitions. Moreover we will admit to our reader in the confessional, that, however convinced in our innermost opinion of the superiority of Dryden's genius, we have more pleasure in reading Pope than we ever could enjoy or imagine under Pope's master. We incline to believe that Dryden being the greatest poet-power, Pope is the best poet-manual; and that whatever Dryden has done – we do not say conceived, we do not say suggested. . . but DONE – Pope has done that thing better. For translations, we hold up Pope's Homer against Dryden's Virgil and the world. Both translations are utterly and equally contrary to the antique, both bad with the same sort of excellence; but Pope's faults are Dryden's faults, while Dryden's are not Pope's. We say the like of the poems from Chaucer; we say the like of the philosophic and satirical poems: the art of reasoning in verse is admirably attained by either poet, but practised with more grace and point by the later one. To be sure, there is the 'Alexander's Feast' ode, called until people half believed what they said, the greatest ode in the language! But here is, to make the scales even again, the 'Eloisa' with tears on it, – faulty but tender – of a sensibility which glorious John was not born with a heart for. To be sure, it was not necessary that John Dryden should keep a Bolingbroke to think for him: but to be sure again, it is something to be born with a heart, particularly for a poet. We recognize besides in Pope, a delicate fineness of tact, of which the precise contrary is unpleasantly obvious in his great master; Horace Walpole's description of Selwyn, un bête inspiré, with a restriction of bête to the animal sense, fitting glorious John like his crown. Now there is nothing of this coarseness of the senses about Pope; the little pale Queen Anne's valetudinarian had a nature fine enough to stand erect upon the point of a needle like a schoolman's angel; and whatever he wrote coarsely, he did not write from inward impulse, but from external conventionality, from a bad social Swift-sympathy. For the rest, he carries out his master's principles into most excellent and delicate perfection: he is rich in his degree. And there is, indeed, something charming even to an enemy's ear in this exquisite balancing of sounds and phrases, these "shining rows" of oppositions and appositions, this glorifying of commonplaces by antithetic processes, this catching, in the rebound, of emphasis upon rhyme and rhyme; all, in short, of this Indian jugglery and Indian carving upon . . . cherrystones! – "and she herself " (that is poetry) –
And she herself one fair Antithesis.
When Voltaire threw his Henriade into the fire and Henault rescued it, "Souvenez-vous," said the president to the poet, "that I burnt my lace ruffles for the sake of your epic." It was about as much as the epic was worth. For our own part, we would sacrifice not only our point, but the prosperity of our very fingers, to save from a similar catastrophe, these works of Pope; and this, although the most perfect and original of all of them, 'The Rape of the Lock,' had its fortune in a fire safe. They are the works of a master. A great poet? oh no! A true poet? – perhaps not. Yet a man, be it remembered, of such mixed gracefulness and power, that Lady Mary Wortley deigned to coquette with him, and Dennis shook before him in his shoes.
Nature, as we have observed, had been expelled by a fork, under the hand of Pope's progenitors; and if in him and around him we see no sign of her return, we do not blame Pope for what is, both in spirit and in form, the sin of his school. Still less would we "play at bowles" with Byron, and praise his right use of the right poetry of ART. Our views of Nature and of Art have been sufficiently explained to leave our opinion obvious of the controversy in question, in which, as in a domestic broil, "there were faults on both sides." Let a poet never write the words "tree," "hill," "river," and he may still be true to nature. Most untrue, on the other hand, most narrow, is the poetical sectarianism, and essentially most unpoetical, which stands among the woods and fields announcing with didactic phlegm, "Here only is nature." Nature is where God is! Poetry is where God is! Can you go up or down or around and not find Him? In the loudest hum of your machinery, in the dunnest volume of your steam, in the foulest street of your city, – there, as surely as in the Brocken pinewoods, and the watery thunders of Niagara, – there, as surely as He is shove all, lie Nature and Poetry in full life. Speak, and they will answer! Nature is a large meaning! Let us make column-room for it in the comprehension of our love! for the coral rock built up by the insect and the marble erected by the man.
In this age of England, however, pet-named the Augustan, there was no room either for Nature or Art: Art and Nature (for we will not separate their names) were at least maimed and dejected and sickening day by day –
Quoth she, I grieve to see your leg
Stuck In a hole here, like a peg;
and even so, or like the peg of a top humming drowsily, our poetry stood still. There was an abundance of "correct writers," yes, and of "elegant writers:" there was Parnell, for instance, who would be called besides, a pleasing writer by any pleasing critic; and Addison, a proverb for the "virtuousest, discreetest, best" with all the world. Or if, after the Scotch mode of Monkbarns, we call our poets by their possessions, not so wronging their characteristics, there was 'The Dispensary,' the 'Art of Preserving Health,' the 'Art of Cookery,' – and 'Trivia,' or the 'Fan,' – take Gay by either of those names! and 'Cider,' or the 'Splendid Shilling' – take Phillips, Milton's imitator, by either of these! and there was Pomfret, not our "choice," the concentrate essence of namby-pambyism; and Prior, a brother spirit of the French Gresset, – a half-brother, of an inferior race, yet to be praised by us for one instinct obvious in him, a blind stretching of the hand to a sweeter order of versification than was current. Of Young we could write much: he was the very genius of antithesis; a genius breaking from "the system," with its broken chain upon his limbs, and frowning darkly through the grey monotony – a grander writer by spasms than by volitions. Blair was of his class, but rougher; a brawny contemplative Orson. And how many of our readers may be unaware of the underground existence of another Excursion than the deathless one of our days, and in blank verse, too, and in several cantos; and how nobody will thank us for digging at these fossil remains! it is better to remember Mallet by his touching ballad of the 'William and Margaret,' a word taken from diviner lips to becoming purpose; only we must not be thrown back upon the 'Ballads,' lest we wish to live with them for ever. Our literature is rich in ballads, a form epitomical of the epic and dramatic, and often vocal when no other music is astir; and to give a particular account of which would take us far across our borders.
As it is, we are across them; we are benighted in our wandering and straitened for room. We glance back vainly to the lights of the later drama, and see Dryden, who had the heart to write rhymed plays after Shakspeare, and but little heart for anything else, – and Congreve, and Lillo, and Southerne, and Rowe, all gifted writers, and Otway, master of tears, who starved in our streets for his last tragedy – a poet most effective in broad touches; rather moving, as it appears to us, by scenes than by words.
Returning to the general poets, we meet with bent faces toward hill-side Nature, Thomson and Dyer; in writing which names together, we do not depreciate Thomson's, however we may a little exalt Dyer's. We praise neither of these writers for being descriptive poets; but for that faithful transcript of their own impressions, which is a common subject of praise in both, – Dyer being more distinct, perhaps, in his images, and Thomson more impressive in his general effect. Both are faulty in their blank verse diction; the latter too florid and verbose, the former (although 'Grongar Hill' is simple almost to baldness) too pedantic and constructive – far too "saponaceous" and "pomaceous." We offer pastoral salutation also to Shenstone and Hammond; pairing them like Polyphemus's sheep; fain to be courteous if we could: and we could if we were 'Phillida.' Surely it is an accomplishment to utter a pretty thought so simply that the world is forced to remember it; and that gift was Shenstone's, and he the most poetical of country gentlemen. May every shrub on the lawn of Leasowes be evergreen to his brow. And next, O most patient reader, – pressed to a conclusion and in a pairing humour, we come to Gray and Akenside together, yes, together! because if Gray had written a philosophic poem he would have written it like the 'Pleasures of Imagination,' and because Akenside would have written odes like Gray, if he could have commanded a rapture. Gray, studious and sitting in the cold, learnt the secret of a simulated and innocent fire (the Greek fire he might have called it), which burns beautifully to the eye, but never would have harmed M. Henault's ruffles. Collins had twenty times the lyric genius of Gray; we feel his fire in our cheeks. But Gray, but Akenside – both with a volition towards enthusiasm – have an under-constitution of most scholastic coldness: "Si vis me flere," you must weep; but they only take out their pocket-handkerchiefs. We confess humbly, before gods and men, that we never read to the end of Akenside's 'Pleasures,' albeit we have read Plato: some pleasures, say the moralists, are more trying than pains. Let us turn for refreshment to Goldsmith – that amiable genius, upon whose diadem we feel our hands laid ever and anon in familiar love, – to Goldsmith, half emerged from "the system," his forehead touched with the red ray of the morning; a cordial singer. Even Johnson, the ponderous critic of the system, who would hang a dog if he read Lycidas twice, who wrote the lives of the poets and left out the poets, even he loved Goldsmith! and Johnson was Dryden's critical bear, a rough bear, and with points of noble beardom. But while he growled the leaves of the greenwood fell; and oh, how sick to faintness grew the poetry of England! Anna Seward "by'r lady," was the "muse" of those days, and Mr. Hayley "the bard," and Hannah More wrote our dramas, and Helen Williams our odes, and Rosa Matilda our elegiacs, – and Blacklock, blind from his birth, our descriptive poems, and Mr. Whalley our domestic epics," and Darwin our poetical philosophy, and Lady Miller encouraged literature at Bath, with red taffeta and 'the vase.' But the immortal are threatened vainly. It was the sickness of renewal rather then of death; St. Leon had his fainting hand on the elixir: the new era was alive in Cowper. We do not speak of him as the master of a transition, only as a hinge on which it slowly turned; only as an earnest tender writer, and true poet enough to be true to himself. Cowper sang in England, and Thomas Warton also, – of a weaker voice but in tune: and Beattie, for whom we have too much love to analyze it, seeing that we drew our childhood's first poetic pleasure from his 'Minstrel'! And Burns walked in glory on the Scotch mountain's side: and everywhere Dr. Percy's collected ballads were sowing the great hearts of some still living for praise, with impulses of greatness. It was the revival of poetry – the opening of the fifth era, – the putting down of the Dryden dynasty – the breaking of the serf bondage – the wrenching of the iron from the soul. And Nature and Poetry did embrace one another! and all men who were lovers of either and of our beloved England, were enabled to resume the pride of their consciousness, and looking round the world say gently, yet gladly, "OUR POETS."