Page images

almost forgotten. But all imported tastes in literature must be in some measure superficial. The poetry which once grew in the bosoms of a people is always capable of being revived by a skilful hand. When the brilliant and poignant lines of Pope began to pall on the public ear, it was natural that we should revert to the cultivation of our indigenous poetry.

"Nor was this the sole, or perhaps the chief agent which was working a poetical change. As the condition and character of the former age had produced an argumentative, didactic, sententious, prudential and satirical poetry, so the approaches to a new order (or rather at first disorder) in political society were attended by correspondent movements in the poetical world. Bolder speculations began to prevail. A combination of the science and art of the tranquil period with the hardy enterprises of that which succeeded gave rise to scientific poems, in which a bold attempt was made, by the mere force of diction, to give a political interest and elevation to the coldest parts of knowledge, and to those arts which have been hitherto considered as the meanest. Having been forced above their natural place by the wonder at first elicited, they have not yet recovered from the subsequent depression. Nor will a similar attempt be successful, without a more temperate use of power over style, till the diffusion of physical knowledge renders it familiar to the popular imagination, and till the prodigies worked by the mechanical arts shall have bestowed on them a character of grandeur.

"As the agitation of men's minds approached the period of an explosion, its effects on literature become more visible. The desire of strong emotion succeeded to the solicitude to avoid disgust. Fictions, both dramatic and narrative, were formed according to the school of Rousseau and Goethe. The mixture of comic and tragic pictures once more displayed itself, as in the ancient and national drama. The sublime and energetic feelings of devotion began to be more frequently associated with poetry. The tendency of political speculation concurred in directing the mind of the poet to the intense and undisguised passions of the uneducated, which fastidious politeness had excluded from the subjects of poetical imitation. The history of nations unlike ourselves, the fantastic mythology and ferocious superstition of distant times and countries, or the legends of our own antique faith, and the romances of our fabulous and heroic

ages, became themes of poetry. Traces of a higher order of feeling appeared in the contemplations in which the poet indulged, and in the events and scenes which he delighted to describe. The fire with which a chivalrous tale was told made the reader inattentive to negligences in the story or the style. Poetry became more devout, more contemplative, more mystical, more visionary, more alien from the taste of those whose poetry is only a polished prosaic verse, more full of antique superstition, and more prone to daring innovation.-painting both coarser realities and purer imaginations than she had before hazarded,—sometimes buried in the profound quiet required by the dreams of fancy, sometimes turbulent and martial, — seeking fierce wars and faithful loves' in those times long past, when the frequency of the most dreadful dangers produced heroic energy and the ardor of faithful affection.

[ocr errors]

"Even the direction given to the traveller by the accidents of war has not been without its influence. Greece, the mother of freedom and of poetry in the West, which had long employed only the antiquary, the artist and the philologist, was at length destined, after an interval of many silent and inglorious ages, to awaken the genius of a poet. Full of enthusiasm for those perfect forms of heroism and liberty which his imagination had placed in the recesses of antiquity, he gave vent to his impatience of the imperfections of living men and real institutions in an original strain of sublime satire, which clothes moral anger in imagery of an almost horrible grandeur; and which, though it cannot coincide with the estimate of reason, yet could only flow from that worship of perfection which is the soul of all true poetry.

“The tendency of poetry to become national was in more than one case remarkable. While the Scottish middle age inspired the most popular poet, perhaps, of the eighteenth century, the national genius of Ireland at length found a poetical representative, whose exquisite ear, and flexible fancy, wantoned in all the varieties of poetical luxury, from the levities to the fondness of love, from polished pleasantry to ardent passion, and from the social joys of private life to a tender and mournful patriotism, taught by the melancholy fortunes of an illustrious country, with a range adapted to every nerve in the composition of a people susceptible of all feelings which have the

color of generosity, and more exempt, probably, than any other from degrading and unpoetical vices.

"The failure of innumerable adventurers is inevitable, in literary, as well as in political, revolutions. The inventor seldom perfects his invention. The uncouthness of the novelty, the clumsiness with which it is managed by an unpractised hand, and the dogmatical contempt of criticism natural to the pride and enthusiasm of the innovator, combine to expose him to ridicule, and generally terminate in his being admired (though warmly) by a few of his contemporaries, remembered only occasionally in after times, and supplanted in general estimation by more cautious and skilful imitators. With the very reverse of unfriendly feelings, we observe that erroneous theories respecting poetical diction, — exclusive and proscriptive notions in criticism, which, in adding new provinces to poetry, would deprive her of ancient dominions and lawful instruments of rule, and a neglect of that extreme regard to general sympathy, and even accidental prejudice, which is necessary to guard poetical novelties against their natural enemy, the satirist, — have powerfully counteracted an attempt, equally moral and philosophical, made by a writer of undisputed poetical genius, to enlarge the territories of art, by unfolding the poetical interest which lies latent in the common acts of the humblest men, and in the most ordinary modes of feeling, as well as in the most familiar scenes of nature.

"The various opinions which may naturally be formed of the merit of individual writers form no necessary part of our consideration. We consider the present as one of the most flourishing periods of English poetry; but those who condemn all contemporary poets need not on that account dissent from our speculations. It is sufficient to have proved the reality, and in part perhaps to have explained the origin, of a literary revolution. At no time does the success of writers bear so uncertain a proportion to their genius, as when the rules of judging and the habits of feeling are unsettled.

"It is not uninteresting, even as a matter of speculation, to observe the fortune of a poem which, like The Pleasures of Memory, appeared at the commencement of this literary revolution, without paying court to the revolutionary tastes, or seeking distinction by resistance to them. It borrowed no aid either from prejudice or innovation. It neither copied the fashion of the age which was passing away, nor

offered any homage to the rising novelties. It resembles, only in measure, the poems of the eighteenth century, which were written in heroic rhyme. Neither the brilliant sententiousness of Pope, nor the frequent languor and negligence perhaps inseparable from the exquisite nature of Goldsmith, could be traced in a poem from which taste and labor equally banished mannerism and inequality. It was patronized by no sect or faction. It was neither imposed on the public by any literary cabal, nor forced into notice by the noisy anger of conspicuous enemies. Yet, destitute as it was of every foreign help, it acquired a popularity originally very great; and which has not only continued amidst extraordinary fluctuation of general taste, but has increased amid a succession of formidable competitors. No production, so popular, was probably ever so little censured by criticism; and thus is combined the applause of contemporaries with the suffrage of the representatives of posterity.

"It is needless to make extracts from a poem which is familiar to every reader. In selection, indeed, no two readers would probably agree; but the description of the Gypsies, of the Boy quitting his Father's house, and of the Savoyard recalling the mountainous scenery of his country, and the descriptive commencement of the tale in Cumberland, have remained most deeply impressed on our minds. We should be disposed to quote the following verses, as not surpassed, in pure and chaste elegance, by any English lines:

When Joy's bright sun has shed his evening ray,
And Hope's delusive meteors cease to play;
When clouds on clouds the smiling prospect close,
Still through the gloom thy star serenely glows
Like yon fair orb she gilds the brow of Night
With the mild magic of reflected light.'

"The conclusion of the fine passage on the Veterans at Greenwich and Chelsea has a pensive dignity which beautifully corresponds with the scene:

'Long have ye known Reflection's genial ray
Gild the calm close of Valor's various day.'

“And we cannot resist the pleasure of quoting the moral, tender and elegant lines which close the poem :

'Lighter than air, Hope's summer-visions fly,

If but a fleeting cloud obscure the sky;
If but a beam of sober Reason play,
Lo! Fancy's fairy frost-work melts away!
But can the wiles of Art, the grasp of Power,
Snatch the rich relics of a well-spent hour?
These, when the trembling spirit wings her flight,
Pour round her path a stream of living light;
And gild those pure and perfect realms of rest,
Where Virtue triumphs, and her sons are blest!'

"The descriptive passages require, indeed, a closer inspection, and a more exercised eye, than those of some celebrated contemporaries who sacrifice elegance to effect, and whose figures stand out, in bold relief, from the general roughness of their more unfinished compositions; and in the moral parts there is often discoverable a Virgilian art, which suggests, rather than displays, the various and contrasted scenes of human life, and adds to the power of language by a certain air of reflection and modesty, in the preference of measured terms to those of more apparent energy.

“In the View from the House, the scene is neither delightful from very superior beauty, nor striking by singularity, nor powerful from reminding us of terrible passions or memorable deeds. It consists of the more ordinary of the beautiful features of nature, neither exaggerated nor represented with curious minuteness, but exhibited with picturesque elegance, in connection with those tranquil emotions which they call up in the calm order of a virtuous mind, in every condition of society and of life. The verses on the Torso are in a more severe style. The Fragment of a divine artist, which awakened the genius of Michael Angelo, seems to disdain ornament. It would be difficult to name two small poems, by the same writer, in which he has attained such high degrees of kinds of excellence so dissimilar, as are seen in the Sick Chamber and the Butterfly. The first has a truth of detail, which, considered merely as painting, is admirable; but assumes a higher character, when it is felt to be that minute remembrance with which affection recollects every circum

« PreviousContinue »