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CONTINUATION-CONCERNING THE REAL OBJECT WHICH, IT IS PROB
ABLE, MR. WORDSWORTH HAD BEFORE HIM IN HIS CRITICAL PREFACE-ELUCIDATION AND APPLICATION OF THIS.
It might appear from some passages in the former part of Mr. Wordsworth's preface, that he meant to confine his theory of style, and the necessity of a close accordance with the actual language of men, to those particular subjects from low and rustic life, which by way of experiment he had purposed to naturalize as a new species in our English poetry. But from the train of argument that follows ; from the reference to Milton; and from the spirit of his critique on Gray's sonnet ; those sentences appear to have been rather courtesies of modesty, than actual limitations of his system. Yet so groundless does this system appear on a close examination; and so strange and overwhelming* in its consequences, that I can not, and I do not, believe that the poet did ever himself adopt it in the unqualified sense, in which his expressions have been understood by others, and which, indeed, according to all the common laws of interpretation they seem to bear. What then did he mean? I apprehend, that in the clear perception, not unaccompanied with disgust or contempt, of the gaudy affectations of a style which passed current with too many for poetic diction (though in truth it had as little pretensions to
* I had in my mind the striking but untranslatable epithet, which the celebrated Mendelssohn applied to the great founder of the Critical Philosophy, “ Der alleszermalmende Kant,” that is, the all-becrushing, or rather the all-to-nothing-crushing Kant. In the facility and force of compound epithets, the German from the number of its cases and inflections approaches to the Greek, that language so
“ Blese'd in the happy marriage of sweet words." It is in the woful harshness of its sounds alone that the German need shrink from the comparison.
poetry, as to logic or common sense), he narrowed his view for the time; and feeling a justifiable preference for the language of nature and of good sense, even in its humblest and least ornamented forms, he suffered himself to express, in terms at once too large and too exclusive, his predilection for a style the most remote possible from the false and showy splendor which he wished to explode. It is possible, that this predilection, at first merely comparative, deviated for a time into direct partiality. But the real object which he had in view, was, I doubt not, a species of excellence which had been long before most happily characterized by the judicious and amiable Garve, whose works are so justly beloved and esteemed by the Germans, in his remarks on Gellert, from which the following is literally translated. “The talent, that is required in order to make excellent verses, is perhaps greater than the philosopher is ready to admit, or would find it in his power to acquire : the talent to seek only the apt expression of the thought, and yet to find at the same time with it the rhyme and the metre. Gellert possessed this happy gift, if ever any one of our poets possessed it; and nothing perhaps contributed more to the great and universal impression which his fables made on their first publication, or conduces more to their continued popularity. It was a strange and curious phænomenon, and such as in Germany had been previously unheard of, to read verses in which every thing was expressed just as one would wish to talk, and yet all dignified, attractive, and interesting; and all at the same time perfectly correct as to the measure of the syllables and the rhyme. It is certain, that poetry when it has attained this excellence makes a far greater impression than prose. So much so indeed, that even the gratification which the very rhymes afford, becomes then no longer a contemptible or trifling gratification."*
However novel this phænomenon may have been in Germany, at the time of Gellert, it is by no means new, nor yet of recent existence in our language. Spite of the licentiousness with which Spenser occasionally compels the orthography of his words into a subservience to his rhymes, the whole Farry QUEEN is an almost continued instance of this beauty. Waller's song, Go, LOVELY ROSE, is doubtless familiar to most of my readers ; but if I had hap
* Sammlung einiger Abhandlungen von Christian Garve. (Leipzig, 1779, pp. 233-4, with slight alterations.-S. C.]
pened to have had by me the Poems of Cotton, more but far less deservedly celebrated as the author of the VIRGIL TRAVESTIED, I should have indulged myself, and I think have gratified many, who are not acquainted with his serious works, by selecting some admirable specimens of this style. There are not a few poems in that volume, replete with every excellence of thought, image, and passion, which we expect or desire in the poetry of the milder muse; and yet so worded, that the reader sees no one reason either in the selection or the order of the words, why he might not have said the very same in an appropriate conversation, and can not conceive how indeed he could have expressed such thoughts otherwise, without loss or injury to his meaning. *
* [Charles Cotton, the poet, was born of a good family in Staffordshire in 1630, died at Westminster in 1687. His Scarronides or Virgil Travestie, a burlesque on the first and fourth books of the Æneid, was printed for the fifteenth time in 1771. The first book was first published in 1664. It seems to have owed its popularity less to its merits than to its piquant de merits, which were infused into it, because, as the author says in the Epilogue to another work in the same style, Burlesque upon Burlesque (quoted in Sir H. Nicolas's Memoirs), in the “precious age” in which he lived.
“ Coarse hempen trash was sooner read,
Than poems of a finer thread," and therefore he must
- "wisely choose
As every one, he knew, would read :" thus coolly resolving to minister to the worse than levity of his age instead of aiming to correct it. The Biographie Universelle affirms that to compare the Virgil Travestie to Hudibras is to compare a caricature to a painting which, though a little overcharged, has a great foundation of truth. He published several prose works beside the Second Part of the Complete Angler. Sir Harris Nicolas observes, that as these “consist almost entirely of translations, and with the exception of Montaigne's Essays, of Memoirs of warriors whose deeds have been eclipsed by modern prowess, it is not surprising that his labors should be forgotten." His volume of Poems on several Occasions was in a sixth edition in 1770.
As a poet Cotton appears to most advantage, when teaching in easy verse and transparent language, a sort of Horatian morality, serious but not ardent or profound, as in his poem called Contentation : or in lively pictures of nature and rustic life, as in his Quatrains on Morning and Noon, on Evening and Night, particularly the two last, which are like Milton's Allegro and Penseroso pitched at a lower key: or in poems of sentiment, as
But in truth our language is, and from the first dawn of poetry ever has been, particularly rich in compositions distinguished by this excellence. The final e, which is now mute, in Chaucer's age was either sounded or dropt indifferently. We ourselves still use either “beloved” or “ belov’d” according as the rhyme, or the Ode to Chlorinda: or the sportive Epistle, as that to Bradshaw quarrelling with him for epistolary neglect; or in the picturesque Anacreontic, a fine specimen of which is his Ode entitled Winter. This poem Mr. Wordsworth describes, in his Preface, as “an admirable composition;" and he quotes the latter part of it as “an instance still more happy of Fancy employed in the treatment of feeling than in the preceding passages, the Poem supplies of her management of forms.”
The poems of Cotton have the same moral stain as Herrick's, with not lese fancy but a less Arcadian air,-more of the world that is about them. The spirit of poetry was indeed on the way downward from “great Eliza's golden time" till its reascent into the region of the pure and elevated towards the end of the last century, and a declension may even be observed, I think, from Herrick to Cotton, who came into the world about thirty-nine years later. His poetry, indeed, has more of Charles II.'s time and less of the Elizabethan period in its manner and spirit than that of Waller, who was but twenty-five years his senior. Cotton writes like a man of this world, who has glimpses now and then of the other; not as if he lived utterly out of sight of it, like the dramatists characterized by C. Lamb. There are more detailed corporeal descriptions in his poetry than in any that I know, of not more than equal extent; descriptions of the youthful body more vividly real than is to be desired, and of the body in age, when it “demands the translucency of mind not to be worse than indifferent” so full of. mortality, or, what it grieves us more to contemplate than ashes and the grave, the partial perishing of the natural man while he is yet alive, that they excite an indignant disgust on behalf of our common humanity. That Cotton was “an ardent royalist," appears in many of his poems, and with special vehemence in his denunciation of Waller for his Panegyric upon Cromwell, which exhibits, in its features, all the ugliness, with some of the energy, of anger. If, as is said, the admirer of Saccharissa leant to monarchy in his heart, his poetic genius had a heart of its own, and a far stronger one, which leant another way; for both his poems on Cromwell have vastly more heart in them than his poetical address to Charles at the Restoration. And this the King himself, among whose faults want of discernment was not to be reckoned, took care to point out, enjoying, no doubt, the versatile poet's double mortification as much as he would have done the best verses. Cotton should have given Waller a receipt for writing as finely about an hereditary monarch, as about a king of “noble nature's crowning”—a Hero.
Some men are worse upon the whole than they appear in their writings: there is reason to hope that Cotton, though an imprudent, was a better man than might be inferred from the tone of much of his poetry, which
measure, or the purpose of more or less solemnity may require. Let the reader then only adopt the pronunciation of the poet and of the court, at which he lived, both with respect to the final e and to the accentuation of the last syllable : I would then venture to ask, what even in the colloquial language of elegant and unaf fected women, (who are the peculiar mistresses of “pure English and undefiled,") what could we hear more natural, or seemingly more unstudied, than the following stanzas from Chaucer's TroiLUS AND CRESEIDE.
“And after this forth to the gate he wente,
And to the yondir hil I gan her gide,
“ And of himselfe imaginid he ofte
Anothir time imaginin he would
That every wight, that past him by the wey, probably exaggerates the features of his earthly mind as much as that of many others exalts the heavenly part of them. The persistent friendship of Isaac Walton is a great testimony in his favor, and it might be conjectured, from the internal evidence of his productions in verse, that of all the poets of his day he was the most agreeable companion, the least apt to fly above his company though never lagging behind in any conversation.
A memoir of Cotton by Sir Harris Nicolas is prefixed to the beautifully illustrated edition of the Complete Angler of 1836. This edition was published by Mr. Pickering, and, as his friend the Editor declares, is very largely indebted to his taste and exertions and biographical knowledge for the value which the volumes possess.
I believe that Mr. Pickering intends to bring out a select edition of the occasional poems of Cotton.-S. C.]