« PreviousContinue »
(with whom he afterwards became intimate); and the opinion he then expressed remained the same through life.
It was in the year 1798 that Rogers published "An Epistle to a Friend, with other Poems," and he did not appear again as an author till the year 1812, when he ventured before the world with a fragmentary poem entitled The Voyage of Columbus. This poem was received by the critics with various favor. In a letter written from Bombay, before its appearance, Sir James Mackintosh had begged to be particularly remembered to Rogers, and added, "I hope Columbus will soon undertake a new voyage to the East, and that he will animate the dulness of the one Indies more quickly than he conquered the barbarism of the other." When the poem appeared, the great whig jurist and statesman, no less eminent as a man of letters and a critic, pronounced his judgment of its merits in the Edinburgh Review for October, 1813; and we feel that we cannot better occupy the pages we have reserved for a literary memoir of the poet than by giving this article entire :
"POEMS BY SAMUEL ROGERS: Including Fragments of a Poem called The Voyage of Columbus. London, 1812.
"It seems very doubtful whether the progress and the vicissitudes of the elegant arts can be referred to the operation of general laws, with the same plausibility as the exertions of the more robust faculties of the human mind, in the severer forms of science and of useful art. The action of fancy and of taste seems to be affected by causes too various and minute to be enumerated with sufficent completeness for the purposes of philosophical theory. To explain them, may appear to be as hopeless an attempt as to account for one summer being more warm and genial than another. The difficulty would be insurmountable, even in framing the most general outline of a theory, if the various forms assumed by imagination, in the fine arts, did not depend on some of the most conspicuous as well as powerful agents in the moral world. But these arise from revolutions of popular sentiments, and are connected with the opinions of the age, and with the manners of the refined class, as certainly, though not in so great a degree, as with the passions of the multitude. The comedy of a polished monarchy never can be of the same character with that
of a bold and tumultuous democracy. Changes of religion and of government, civil or foreign wars, conquests which derive splendor from distance or extent or difficulty, long tranquillity, - all these, and indeed every conceivable modification of the state of a community, show themselves in the tone of its poetry, and leave long and deep traces on every part of its literature. Geometry is the same, not only at London and Paris, but in the extremes of Athens and Samarcand; but the state of the general feeling in England, at this moment, requires a different poetry from that which delighted our ancestors in the time of Luther or Alfred.
During the greater part of the eighteenth century, the connection of the character of English poetry with the state of the country was very easily traced. The period which extended from the English to the French Revolution was the golden age of authentic history. Governments were secure, nations tranquil, improvements rapid, manners mild beyond the example of any former age. The English nation, which possessed the greatest of all human blessings, a wisely constructed popular government, necessarily enjoyed the largest share of every other benefit. The tranquillity of that fortunate period was not disturbed by any of those calamitous, or even extraordinary events, which excite the imagination and inflame the passions. No age was more exempt from the prevalence of any species of popular enthusiasm. Poetry, in this state of things, partook of that calm, argumentative, moral, and directly useful character, into which it naturally subsides when there are no events to call up the higher passions, when every talent is allured into the immediate service of a prosperous and improving society,—and when wit, taste, diffused literature, and fastidious criticism, combine to deter the young writer from the more arduous enterprises of poetical genius. In such an age, every art becomes rational. Reason is the power which presides in a calm. But reason guides, rather than impels; and, though it must regulate every exertion of genius, it never can rouse it to vigorous action.
"The school of Dryden and Pope, which prevailed till a very late period of the last century, is neither the most poetical nor the most national part of our literary annals. These great poets sometimes, indeed, ventured into the regions of pure poetry; but their general character is, that not in fancy's maze they wandered long;' and
that they rather approached the elegant correctness of our continental neighbors, than supported the daring flight, which, in the former age, had borne English poetry to a sublimer elevation than that of any other modern people of the West.
"Towards the middle of the century, great, though quiet changes, began to manifest themselves in the republic of letters in every European nation which retained any portion of mental activity. About that time, the exclusive authority of our great rhyming poets began to be weakened, while new tastes and fashions began to show themselves in the political world. A school of poetry must have prevailed long enough to be probably on the verge of downfall, before its practice is embodied in a correspondent system of criticism.
"Johnson was the critic of our second poetical school. As far as his prejudices of a political or religious kind did not disqualify him for all criticism, he was admirably fitted by nature to be the critic of this species of poetry. Without more imagination, sensibility or delicacy, than it required, not always with perhaps quite enough for its higher parts, he possessed sagacity, shrewdness, experience, knowledge of mankind, a taste for rational and orderly compositions, and a disposition to accept, instead of poetry, that lofty and vigorous declamation in harmonious verse, of which he himself was capable, and to which his great master sometimes descended. His spontaneous admiration scarcely soared above Dryden. Merit of a loftier class he rather saw than felt.' Shakspeare has transcendent excellence of every sort, and for every critic, except those who are repelled by the faults which usually attend sublime virtues, - character and manners, morality and prudence, as well as imagery and passion. Johnson did, indeed, perform a vigorous act of reluctant justice towards Milton; but it was a proof, to use his own words, that
At length our mighty bard's victorious lays
The deformities of the Life of Gray ought not to be ascribed to jealousy, for Johnson's mind, though coarse, was not mean, but to the prejudices of his university, his political faction, and his poetical
sect; and this last bigotry is the more remarkable, because it is exerted against the most skilful and tasteful of innovators, who, in reviving more poetical subjects and a more splendid diction, has employed more care and finish than those who aimed only at correct
But it had
"The interval which elapsed between the death of Goldsmith and the rise of Cowper is perhaps more barren than any other twelve years in the history of our poetry since the accession of Elizabeth. It seemed as if the fertile soil was at length exhausted. in fact only ceased to exhibit its accustomed produce. The established poetry had worn out either its own resources, or the constancy of its readers. Former attempts to introduce novelty had been either too weak or too early. Neither the beautiful fancy of Collins, nor the learned and ingenious industry of Warton, nor even the union of sublime genius with consummate art in Gray, had produced a general change in poetical composition. But the fulness of time was approaching; and a revolution has been accomplished, of which the commencement nearly coincides-not, as we conceive, accidentally -with that of the political revolution which has changed the character, as well as the condition, of Europe. It has been a thousand times observed, that nations become weary even of excellence, and seek a new way of writing, though it should be a worse. But, besides the operation of satiety, the general cause of literary revolutions,several particular circumstances seem to have affected the late changes of our poetical taste; of which, two are more conspicuous than the rest.
“In the natural progress of society, the songs which are the effusion of the feelings of a rude tribe are gradually polished into a form of poetry still retaining the marks of the national opinions, sentiments and manners, from which it originally sprung. The plants are improved by cultivation; but they are still the native produce of the soil. The only perfect example which we know, of this sort, is Greece. Knowledge and useful art, and perhaps in a great measure religion, the Greeks received from the East; but, as they studied no foreign language, it was impossible that any foreign literature should influence the progress of theirs. Not even the name of a Persian, Assyrian, Phenician, or Egyptian poet is alluded to by any Greek writer. The Greek poetry was, therefore, wholly national.
Pelasgic ballads were insensibly formed into Epic, and Tragic, and Lyric poems; but the heroes, the opinions, and the customs, continued as exclusively Grecian as they had been when the Hellenic minstrels knew little beyond the Adriatic and the Ægean. The literature of Rome was a copy from that of Greece. When the classical studies revived amid the chivalrous manners and feudal institutions of Gothic Europe, the imitation of ancient poets struggled against the power of modern sentiments, with various event. in different times and countries, but everywhere in such a manner as to give somewhat of an artificial and exotic character to poetry. Jupiter and the Muses appeared in the poems of Christian nations. The feelings and principles of democracies were copied by the gentlemen of Teutonic monarchies or aristocracies. The sentiments of the poet in his verse were not those which actuated him in his conduct. The forms and rules of composition were borrowed from antiquity, instead of spontaneously arising from the manner of thinking of modern communities. In Italy, when letters first revived, the chivalrous principle was too near the period of its full vigor to be oppressed by his foreign learning. Ancient ornaments were borrowed; but the romantic form was prevalent; and where the forms were classical, the spirit continued to be romantic. The structuro of Tasso's poem was that of the Grecian epic; but his heroes were Christian knights. French poetry, having been somewhat unaccountably late in its rise, and slow in its progress, reached its most brilliant period when all Europe had considerably lost its ancient characteristic principles, and was fully imbued with classical ideas. Hence it acquired faultless elegance; hence also it became less natural, - more timid and more imitative, - more like a feeble translation of Roman poetry. The first age of English poetry, in the reign of Elizabeth, displayed a combination, fantastic enough, of chivalrous fancy and feeling with classical pedantry; but, upon the whole, its native genius was unsubdued. The poems of that age, with all their faults, and partly perhaps from their faults, are the most national part of our poetry, as they undoubtedly contain its highest beauties. From the accession of James, to the Civil War, the glory of Shakspeare turned the whole national genius to the drama; and, after the restoration, a new and classical school arose, under whom our old and peculiar literature was abandoned, and