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poet.” Only the words which followl ought not, I think, to be rendered, “who is to be compared to him,” that is to say, “who is his equal as a poet.” They mean rather, “who may properly be compared with him," "
"who is his parallel.” And when Goethe said that Byron was “in the main greater” than all the rest of the English poets, he was not so much thinking of the strict rank, as poetry, of Byron's production ; he was thinking of that wonderful personality of Byron which so enters into his poetry, and which Goethe called “a personality such, for its eminence, as has never been yet, and such as is not likely to come again.” He was thinking of that “daring, dash, and grandiosity,"2 of Byron, which are indeed so splendid ; and which were, so Goethe maintained, of a character to do good, because “everything great is formative,” and what is thus formative does us good.
The faults which went with this greatness, and which impaired Byron's poetical work, Goethe saw very well. He saw the constant state of warfare and combat, the “negative and polemical working,” which makes Byron's poetry a poetry in which we can so little find rest; he saw the Hang zum Unbegrenzten, the straining after the unlimited, which made it impossible for Byron to produce poetic wholes such as the Tempest or Lear; he saw the zu viel Empirie, the promiscuous adoption of all the matter offered to the poet by life, just as it was offered, without thought or patience for the mysterious transmutation to be operated on this matter by poetic form. But in a sentence which I cannot, as I say, remember to have yet seen quoted in any English criticism of Byron, Goethe
1 "Der ihm zu vergleichen wäre.” 2 “Byron's Kühnheit, Keckheit und Grandiositat, ist das nicht alles bildend :—Alles Grosse bildet, sobald wir es gewahr werden."
lays his finger on the cause of all these defects in Byron, and on his real source of weakness both as a man and as a poet. “ The moment he reflects, he is a child," says Goethe ;—“ sobald er reflectirt ist er ein Kind."
Now if we take the two parts of Goethe's criticism of Byron, the favourable and the unfavourable, and put them together, we shall have, I think, the truth. On the one hand a splendid and puissant personality, a personality “in eminence such as has never been yet, and is not likely to come again ;" of which the like, there. fore, is not to be found among the poets of our nation, by which Byron" is different from all the rest, and, in the main, greater.” Byron is, moreover, “the greatest talent of our century.” On the other hand, this splendid personality and unmatched talent, this unique Byron, “ is quite too much in the dark about himself;"1 nay, “the moment he begins to reflect, he is a child.” There we have, I think, Byron complete ; and in estimating him and ranking him we have to strike a balance between the gain which accrues to his poetry, as compared with the productions of other poets, from his superiority, and the loss which accrues to it from his defects.
A balance of this kind has to be struck in the case of all poets except the few supreme masters in whom a profound criticism of life exhibits itself in indissoluble connexion with the laws of poetic truth and beauty. I have seen it said that I allege poetry to have for its characteristic this : that it is a criticism of life ; and that I make it to be thereby distinguished from prose, which is something else. So far from it, that when I first used this expression, a criticism of life, now many years ago, it was to literature in general that I applied it, and not
1 “Gar zu dunkel über sich selbst.”
to poetry in especial. “The end and aim of all literature,” I said, “is, if one considers it attentively, nothing but that :-a criticism of life.” And so it surely is; the main end and aim of all our utterance, whether in prose or in verse, is surely a criticism of life. We are not brought much on our way, I admit, towards an adequate definition of poetry as distinguished from prose by that truth ; still a truth it is, and poetry can never prosper if it is forgotten. In poetry, however, the criticism of life has to be made conformably to the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty. Truth and seriousness of substance and matter, felicity and perfection of diction and manner, as these are exhibited in the best poets, are what consti, tute a criticism of life made in conformity with the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty; and it is by knowing and feeling the work of those poets, that we learn to recognise the fulfilment and non-fulfilment of such conditions.
The moment, however, that we leave the small band of the very best poets, the true classics, and deal with poets of the next rank, we shall find that perfect truth and seriousness of matter, in close alliance with perfect truth and felicity of manner, is the rule no longer. We have now to take what we can get, to forego something here, to admit compensation for it there; to strike a balance, and to see how our poets stand in respect to one another when that balance has been struck. Let us observe how this is so.
We will take three poets, among the most considerable of our century : Leopardi, Byron, Wordsworth. Giacomo Leopardi was ten years younger than Byron, and he died thirteen years after him ; both of them, therefore, died young, Byron at the age of thirty-six, Leopardi at the age of thirty-nine. Both of them were
of noble birth, both of them suffered from physical defect, both of them were in revolt against the established facts and beliefs of their age ; but here the likeness between them ends. The stricken poet of Recanati had no country, for an Italy in his day did not exist ; he had no audience, no celebrity. The volume of his poems, published in the very year of Byron's death, hardly sold, I suppose, its tens, while the volumes of Byron's poetry were selling their tens of thousands. And yet Leopardi has the very qualities which we have found wanting to Byron; he has the sense for form and style, the passion for just expression, the sure and firm touch of the true artist. Nay, more, he has a grave fulness of knowledge, an insight into the real bearings of the questions which as a sceptical poet he raises, a power of seizing the real point, a lucidity, with which the author of Cain has nothing to compare. I can hardly imagine Leopardi reading the
“... And thou would'st go on aspiring
To the great double Mysteries ! the two Principles !” or following Byron in his theological controversy with Dr. Kennedy, without having his features overspread by a calm and fine smile, and remarking of his brilliant contemporary, as Goethe did, that “the moment he begins to reflect, he is a child.” But indeed whoever wishes to feel the full superiority of Leopardi over Byron in philosophic thought and in the expression of it, has only to read one paragraph of one poem, the paragraph of La Ginestra beginning
“Sovente in queste piagge," and ending
“Non so se il riso o la pietà prevale." In like manner, Leopardi is at many points the poetic
superior of Wordsworth too. He has a far wider culture than Wordsworth, more mental lucidity, more freedom from illusions as to the real character of the established fact and of reigning conventions; above all, this Italian, with his pure and sure touch, with his fineness of perception, is far more of the artist. Such a piece of pompous dulness as
“O for the coming of that glorious time,” and all the rest of it, or such lumbering verse as Mr. Ruskin's enemy,
“Parching summer hath no warrant," would have been as impossible to Leopardi as to Dante. Where, then, is Wordsworth's superiority ? for the worth of what he has given us in poetry I hold to be greater, on the whole, than the worth of what Leopardi has given us. It is in Wordsworth's sound and profound
“Of joy in widest commonalty spread;" whereas Leopardi remains with his thoughts ever fixed upon the essenza insanabile, upon the acerbo, indegno mistero delle cose.
It is in the power with which Wordsworth feels the resources of joy offered to us in nature, offered to us in the primary human affections and duties, and in the power with which in his moments of inspiration he renders this joy and makes us, too, feel it; a force greater than himself seeming to lift him and to prompt his tongue, so that he speaks in a style far above any style of which he has the constant command, and with a truth far beyond any philosophic truth of which he has the conscious and assured possession. Neither Leopard nor Wordsworth are of the same order with the great poets who made such verse as