Page images

so far vitiated by the elegant filigree-work and subtle absurdities of Cowley, that they could not appreciate contemporary writers, who rose infinitely above him, and it was reserved for a subsequent age to discover the greatness of Milton. In the last century, those, on whom the mantle of Pope had fallen without his spirit, were delighted with a cold and soulless harmony of sounds. Yet never was a time, when the ancient, as well as the earlier modern classics, were deluged with a more ceaseless cataract of praise. A like utterly perverted taste in appreciating the authors of their day, characterized the age of Statius among the Romans, of Voiture among ihe French, and in short has been frequently visible in every nation. Now, as most of us will admit that the Court of Charles II., and the men of a large portion of the last century were utterly mis. taken in their estimate of their own cherished favorites, may it not be. come us to hesitate a little in forming our judgment of our contemporaries and immediate predecessors, especially when their charms are of that kind, which so easily dazzles and deceives ? Let us not be in haste to deify them, lest a more enlightened, or a more impartial age stigma. tize us as heretics, or blind idolaters. Let us not be over-zealous to dethrone the ancient Saturn before we are sure we have a veritable Jupiter to instate in his place.

Entertaining these general views, I have thought I might amuse my. self, and perhaps interest and benefit many lovers of genuine poetry, by composing two or three rambling essays on the productions of the English Muse. And as neither my leisure and health, nor the circum. scribed limits and diversified character of this Magazine, admit of technical discussion, deep analysis, large quotations and specific proof, I shall content myself with the statement of a few general facts, principles and illustrations, which, I am persuaded, will recommend them. selves to the impartial investigator, as rational and true.

My confession of faith,' then, is that the old poets, from Spenser to Cowper, are far more worthy of your earnest attention, than are Scott and Wordsworth, with their contemporaries and successors, who gained so large honors for England, and who found themselves, almost without an effort, in the possession of so wide, so immediate, and so noisy a

In listening to the teachings of those ancient and venerable masters, you will be in a far safer, and, as I think, a far more instructive school, than in abiding the discipline of this later academy, with its sounding claims and titled professors. And in saying this, I claim, nevertheless, to cherish as much respect, and gratitude, and love for these latter, as any rational admirer can demand. They all by their talents, have been an honor to their country, and some of them in their productions have proved a blessing to mankind. They have enlarged the bounds of poetry, and introduced some valuable changes. Above all, they awakened the English Genius from his sleep of dull and servile imitation, and sent the blood of rejuvenescence through his torpid limbs. He who had at times seemed nearly in his dotage, awoke from his lethargy like a young and vigorous Samson, and almost attained his ancient pride of strength and loftiness of stature. His awakening first caused by Cowper, was followed by some masterly productions, productions too of such sudden celebrity and wild-fire spread, that to be unacquainted


word to say:

with them would argue unpardonable ignorance. But the resuscitating drugs in that Medean kettle were quite too potent. They made him quite too juvenile; a mad and mighty boy, drunk with exhilarating gas, rioting in the excess of his strength, 'tearing passion to tatters,' and trampling on Nature, who should have been his mistress. Admiring and loving this rampant, and mischievous, and prodigal youth for his many noble feats, I yet turn with warmer love and deeper admiration to that calm and vigorous man, who lavished not his energies on trifles, but suited his strength to the occasion, and married Genius to Wisdom, and made Minerva strike rare music on the lyre of Apollo.

And now to the exclusive advocates of this modern school, and who think it is destined entirely to supersede the old and crumbling college, of which Chaucer was the founder, and whose presidents have continued in a shining and almost unbroken line to the days of Cowper, I have a

You are quite sure that your favorites are the prime ministers of nature; men of superior genius and more comprehensive capacity than their musty predecessors ? "Oh! that is self-evident to every feeling heart.' Exactly. But perhaps the feelings have received a perverted bent, and the decision of the heart should always be ratified by the judgment of the head. Can you give me a clear, categorical, definite statement of your grounds for preference? Yes: they have shaken off the dull weight of drowsy centuries, and their unclogged wings are ready for a tireless flight.'

But did it never strike you that this weight of centuries may be the frequent teachings of experience; a ballast necessary to steady and sustain that night? And would not some of these singing birds, in doubling a windy promontory, have been saved from being blown away into the realms of nonsense, if, like Plutarch's Cretan bees, they had tied a few weights to their bodies ? Are the poets of the nineteenth century wise enough to walk independently of the practice or the counsels of the seven-and-twenty centuries before them ? Has a new and nobler Adam bequeathed his life and intellect to a new and nobler race ?

But they have wrought a great change in the style of poetry ?'

I grant it. But was the change desirable ? That's the question. If they had merely displaced the Hayleys, and Anna Matildas, and stupid Della Cruscans of 1760 and 1790, their services to English literature would stand undisputed.

ated. But when they attempt to crowd aside the worthies of the Shakspearian and Miltonic and Addisonian eras, I enter a demurrer. If the old authors were good in manner and in matter, why innovate upon them? Why long for change as change, or aim at novelty at all, except so far as the independent imitation of Nature will produce it? Was there any deficiency in the old authors ? And if any, wherein did it consist ? Was it in the knowledge of character; the consistency with nature ; the fertility of fancy; the utterance of passion; the meltings of pathos; the harmony of numbers; the energy of language; the order of arrangement; the strength of reason; or the sublimity of thought? In none of these particulars will the most minute inspection discover any superiority in the sons over the sires, and in several of them a marked inferiority. What! Is there a chamber in the human heart, which Shakspeare has not unlocked and rifled

of its treasures to enrich his cabinet of jewels ? Is there a character among all the varieties of men, which he has not portrayed till it appears more distinct than the original ; more vivid than the very life? Is there a passion, which he has not embodied in human action, and displayed in all its depth and power? For his fancy, may we not say in simplest truth :

"Its glittering wings explore
Earth's farthest realms and ocean's wildest shore ?'

Is there any height still higher than high above the Aonian mount,' where Milton soared, singing

• Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme ?"

Is there any energy of language more energetic, or melody of music more melodious than the lines of him

[ocr errors][merged small]
[ocr errors]

But,' say you, 'I compare them not with Shakspeare, or Milton.'

Well, let Shakspeare stand aside : for he at least, I suppose, will never be uncrowned as long as the human heart shall beat: but really I had begun to think Milton almost laid on the shelf. I close with you however, on our other classics, and ask you where you can find nobler heroic lines than Dryden's — apart from his tasteless dra. mas

where a smoother flow and a more terse compactness than in Pope and Gray; where a gloomier and yet more human sorrow than in Young's Night Thoughts; and where language of more varied ease, from polished elegance to rugged strength, than in the various poems of the timid Cowper? If we look for power of pathos ; the language of true and natural passion; where shall we find more moving examples than in the Epistle of Eloisa to Abelard; the Elegy in a Country Church-yard; The Deserted Village ; The Hermit of Parnell, or Cow. per's Lines to my Mother's Picture;' a poem literally all bathed in tears? What more of your idols ?

Why, they have introduced into our language new measures, and a freer system of versification.'

But had not our language already been woven into almost every variety of verse, which can be considered elegant or desirable ? There is the sonnet, of which Milton is still the supreme master; for his successors have always been too stilted or too tame. There was the Spenserian stanza; the witching step of L'Allegro' and · Il Pensieroso, the free verse of Comus and Samson Agonistes; and the facile cadence of the ever admirable Lycidas, and of the hardly less wonderful Hymn on the Nativity. Passing from Milton, look for a minute at the chainless harmony of Alexander's Feast; the spontaneous flow of Collins' Ode on the Passions, and that exquisite relic, the Ode to Evening; the graceful and most Virgilian involutions of Thomson ; and the absolute freedom of Cowper's rhythm. Why instance the diversified metres, as well as the poetry, 'more golden than gold,' to be found in the works of those sweet old writers, George Herbert, Giles Fletcher, and others too numerous to mention ; for their name is Legion ?' The modern

[ocr errors]

poets, then, can hardly claim to have unfettered English poetry as to rhythm ; since there is scarce an imaginable metre, which may not be found exemplified with great harmony and beauty among the writings of their fathers. For whatever extension they may have given to the measures of the English muse, we are duly grateful. But the most important change, was that attempted by Southey, in the experiment of writing long poems in a kind of anarchical prose, knowing neither law nor rule, but measured off irregularly and · ad libitum,' at once passing beyond the noble freedom of prose, and falling short of the musical charm of poetry. The attempt proved to be a failure, as might have been expected. The endeavor to engraft this species of prose.poetry on the rugged stock of our monosyllabic language, is about as hopeful an enterprise, as it would be to close the majestic flow of Latin and Greek hexameters in jingling rhythms, and Southey's Thalaba and Curse of Kehama, in spite of their fine language and splendid imagery, are read only by the curious. That, which the experience of the readers of poetry in all languages will prove, may be confidently asserted, that any poem, to be permanently popular, must not only express poetical thoughts, but be invested with harmonious rhythm. The greatest stickler for abstract excellence, will not love the figure without the robe. All men feel rhyme, or at least rhythm, to be agreeable, and to deny the fact, or dispute its consonance with reason, is folly. How futile, then, to expect that the heroic measure, and other measures, whether in rhyme or blank verse, of a regularly recurring consonance of sounds, or perceptible harmony of cadence, will ever go out of date, and be supplanted by those compositions, in which the ear can detect no metre, or, if any, only by a painful effort, and with an abstraction of the mind from the sense of the writer in the search after the rhythm, and the doubt whether he is reading poetry or prose! And this constitutes a real and most obvious objection to many English poems, of earlier and of later days. Is there any other excellence which you require, and which you miss in them ?

"Yes! I miss the deep probing of the soul; the subtle investigation of the laws of our being ; the dreamy reveries on the undefined and undefinable emotions of the spirit; the Orphic hints at the mysteries of our strange, psychological existence.' Ah, well! This, I believe, you will not find in them. The kind of poetry you wish may be obtained, I presume, by taking the beautiful, but aimless vagaries of the gifted Shelly, the poetic prose of Coleridge's Table Talk and Friend, and the prosaic poetry of the Excursion, and fusing them together in a kind of witches' caldron, when after many years of double, double, toil and trouble, you may catch a half-glimpse of what they supposed they meant in their eloquent rantings. But I willingly grant that in our well-beloved friends, the old English classics, you can find nothing of this philosophical poetry, or poetic philosophy, which bears so strong an affinity to those reasonings which darken counsel by words without wisdoin,' once spoken of by the puzzled Scotchman, who said, when a man dinna ken what he means himsel', and naebody else kens, they call it metaphysics. They were neither Mystics nor Gnostics. They attempted not to popularize in rhyme the sublimated philosophy of

Plato, nor reduced to poetry the pantheism of Spinoza. Their highest conceptions were only common sense etherealized. They had not been inoculated with neological divinity, or mesmerized with super-rational transcendentalism. What they believed, they comprehended; what they aimed at, they knew; what they felt, they wrote. They caught no ecstatic glimpses of that double-natured and shifting 'tertium-quid,' invisible to vulgar eyes, which hangs somewhere between something and nothing. They attempted not to explain what by its nature is inexplicable, or hint wisely at mysteries, which they could only hint at. The visible appearances of the world without, and the sensible move. ments of the world within, 'were the themes of all their writings, objective or subjective. The emotions which gushed up ebullient and spontaneous from the well-spring of their hearts, they transfused into the hearts of others, and with this they were satisfied. And where among later productions (unless it be in those of the old-school style, such as The Pleasures of Hope, and Human Life,) are to be found the extended poems.of a grand but definite and rational scope, whose outline encompasses a great and worthy field, and whose filling-up is wrought with minute and careful accuracy, like the Essay on Man; the Night Thoughts; the Seasons; the Traveller; the Deserted Village, and several of Cowper's Poems? I have looked in vain. The poems of Campbell, Rogers, and Crabbe, are to be thrown out of the account, because, as before hinted, their writings are essentially after the old models. Of the remaining poets of modern England, the only ones, who can advance their claims in rivalry with the authors of the fine old poems mentioned above, are Scott, Wordsworth, Byron, and some might say Southey and Shelley. As for Moore, Wilson, Keats, White, Hemans, etc., etc., in regard to any thing but fugitive poems, they are entirely out of the question. Most of my readers will join me in throwing out of the contest Southey and Shelley. As to Scott, his two principal poems, Marmion and The Lady of the Lake, are nothing more than novels, fertile in pleasing incident and natural description, and clothed in easy, spirited, and sometimes captivating verse. They bear the same relation to the loftier efforts of the Epic muse, which a genteel and graceful melodrame bears to a stern, high tragedy of old. Loth am I to depreciate even the poetry of the Scottish magician, though I much prefer his rich and pictured prose. But surely I may say that no man ever rose from his poems with an impression of majesty and power, such as he feels after reading the Night Thoughts, or the Seasons. İn reference to Wordsworth and Byron, I have much to say hereafter. But here it may be remarked, that those older poems have a definite aim, a vigorous coloring, and a healthy tone. They did not guide their course by vague impulse, and leave their meaning to dubious conjecture, as is done in some aimless excursions of roving genius. Their Pegasus could fly ; but they thought it necessary to bridle him, lest their ride should be like Phaëton's of old, ending in discomfiture and ruin.

Coleridge might, perhaps, have been the greatest poet of the Nineteenth Century. The sublime Hymn at Sunrise in the Valley of Chamouni,' the wizard • Christabel,' the awful · Rime of the Auntient

« PreviousContinue »