Изображения страниц
PDF
EPUB

a natural style in poetry, Mr Coleridge proceeds to say:

"The real object which Mr Wordsworth 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 which 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 phenomenon, 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

of Chaucer and Spenser, our author After having discussed the merits proceeds to the consideration of by far the greatest era of our poetry,

the gratification which the very rhymes af--that we mean of which Shakeford, becomes then no longer a contemptible or trifling gratification."

"However novel," adds Mr Coleridge, "this phenomenon 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 Fairy Queen is an almost continued instance of this beauty."

As an instance of what is here described, we give the following stanzas, which Mr Coleridge has quoted in another part of his book.

At last the golden orientall gate
Of greatest heaven 'gan to open fayre,
And Phoebus, fresh as bridegrome to his
mate,

By this the northern waggoner had set
His sevenfold time behind the stedfast
starre,
That was in ocean waves yet never wet,
But firm is fixt and sendeth light from
farre,

To all that in the wild deep wandering are;
And cheerful chanticleer, with his note
shrill,

Had warned once that Phoebus fiery carre
In haste was climbing up the eastern hill,
Full envious that night so long his room
did fill.

1

Came dauncing forth, shaking his deawie hayre,

And hurl'd his glist'ring beams through gloomy ayre,

Which, when the wakeful elf perceived, streightway

He started up, and did himself prepare
In sunbright armes, and battailous array,
For with that pagan proud he combat will
that day.

We have only to add, on this part of the subject, that, had Mr Coleridge's book consisted of a series of such criticisms, we have no hesitation in saying, that, instead of regretting that his fine powers should be wasted amidst the foppery and extravagance of German metaphysics, we should have looked forward with delight to the completion of any prose work he might have thought proper to undertake; and that we should never have ventured even to hint at his mistake in leaving his vocation as a votary of the muses.

speare and Milton are the representatives. It is not necessary, however, that we should now enter into any discussion respecting the characteristic merits of these authors. The almost universal voice of the civilized world has borne testimony to their excellence, and with respect to the first of them in particular, Mr Hazlitt is well known not only as a most enthu-. siastic admirer, but as a very able critic.

Yet we cannot help on this occasion expressing our wonder at the very opposite qualities which are attributed to this poet, by persons equally disposed to descant on his merits, and equally qualified to appreciate his excellencies. For instance, there is nothing more commonly affirmed of Shakespeare, than that all his characthis is, in fact, the quality by which ters are individual and precise,-that his writings are distinguished from those of all other poets,—and that, by this pre-eminence, his works may be regarded, not so much as copies of what is daily transacted in the world around us, as scenes actually transferred from the broad volume of Nature

into the smaller page which the poet has beautified. Yet, in opposition to this opinion, Dr Johnson is known to have maintained, that the characters of Shakespeare differ from those of all other poets, in being not individuals but species, and that this is the reason why there is so much discussion and so much contrariety of opinion respecting the particular manner in which even his most striking characters ought to be represented. We find, in the same manner, that while one critic considers the character of Shakespeare's fancy to have been all nature, and truth, and homeliness, another is equally clear, that his poetry is indicative of an imagination that was unique and irregular, and that delighted to behold the most familiar objects and scenes under aspects scarcely recognised by ordinary minds. Some other remarkable discrepancies of the same kind may be found, we believe, in the criticisms which have been so profusely poured forth upon the merits of this poet. What we mean, therefore, to say is, that though these differences may be only an additional evidence of the transcendant merits of this dramatist, they seem to us equally to prove, that a correct idea of his peculiar genius is not yet very generally diffused among the inhabitants of this country; and we venture, therefore, to hint, that, notwithstanding all that Mr Hazlitt and other preceding critics have done towards discriminating the characters which Shakespeare has created, or pointing out the beauty of particular passages, a just account of the peculiarities of his fancy,-of that mental eye by which he viewed the universe, and received from it those impressions which are transferred to his works, is still a great desideratum in British literature.

riance of our native fancy had gradually been reduced to artificial neatness; and Pope was the leader of a host of authors whose productions were the admiration of our grandfathers and grand-dames, and which, like the cut of their dresses, and the adornment of their heads, were less remarkable for nature or freedom, than for studied stiffness and mechanical precision. We are very far, however, from agreeing in opinion with those who maintain, that Pope had no just title to the character of a poet, and we think, indeed, that the very suggestion of such an idea betrays a very imperfect conception on the part of those who entertain it, of the vast range which poetry embraces, and of the very varied subjects on which its powers inay be displayed. Pope certainly was not, in the highest sense of the term, a poet, that is, he was not the creator of any epic tale, or the inventor of any new machinery for the conduct of his fictions; nor was he even, in another sense of the term, an enthusiastic painter of natural scenery, or a profound proficient in the more terrible emotions of the human heart. Yet why should the term be limited to the endowments of one who is conversant with such subjects; and if, according to the instructive instances adduced by Mr Hazlitt, the seeds of poetry may be discovered in our nature, as well when we contemplate the city apprentice who gazes in astonishment at the Lord Mayor's show, or the miser who hugs his gold, or the courtier who builds his hopes upon a smile, or when we see the child first playing at hide and seek, or the shepherd boy crowning his inistress with flowers, or the countryman gazing with delight at the rainbow,-why should not the refinements of civilized life, the fine precepts of criticisin and taste, or the follies and fopperies of the children of fashion, be equally the foundation of poetical representation, as the employments of rustics, the beauties of a landscape, or the va rying appearances of the seasons of the year? It is quite evident, we think, that, unless these topics were occasionally treated by men of refined taste and of active fancy, one very great department of the region of poetry would be left uncultivated and unproductive; and we think, therefore, with our author, that he who

During the two eras we have already noticed, the poetry of this country shot up free and unembarrassed, like a luxuriant tree, with all its blushing honours thick upon it. In the former of these eras, it had all the indications of youth and native vigour, and in the latter it attained its full size, and spread out those everlasting branches, beneath which successive generations are to find nourishment and delight. The next age of our poetry, however, was of a very different cast. The untamed luxu

takes the first rank among poets of this order, is entitled to a higher place in the esteem of his countrymen, than those who, in another track, are but willing imitators of the great masters of description or of feeling.

The great change in the poetical condition of this country, which, within the last twenty years, has attracted so much of the attention of the world, may be dated, in its first dawn, to the publication of the poems of Thomson and Cowper. The artificial method and tame correctness of their immediate predecessors, had given place, in the writings of those last named authors, to an ardent enthusiasm for the beauties of Nature, and a careless simplicity in their mode of describing them; and succeeding authors were prepared by the popularity of their works, for extending the same plan to other subjects of a very different character, and to the whole range, indeed, of their studies and pursuits. Other causes, also, of a very powerful nature, contributed to the production of the same effect; and the following passage from Mr Hazlitt's work, describing, in particular, the effect of the new views opened up by the French revolution, and of the recently created school of poetry in Germany, in leading to the change which has taken place in our own, may be taken as a specimen both of his mode of criticism, and of his ers of narration.

the most servile imitation and tamest common-place, to the utmost pitch of singu larity and paradox. belles-lettres was as complete, and to many The change in the persons as startling, as the change in politics, with which it went hand in hand. of statesmen and poets, kings and people. There was a mighty ferment in the heads According to the prevailing notions, all was established was to be tolerated. All was to be natural and new. Nothing that the common-place figures of poetry, tropes, allegories, personifications, with the whole heathen mythology, were instantly discarded; a classical allusion was considered as a piece of antiquated foppery; capital letters were no more allowed in print, than lettersfrom their rank and station in legitimate patent of nobility were permitted in real life; kings and queens were dethroned tragedy or epic poetry, as they were decapitated elsewhere; rhyme was looked upon as a relic of the feudal system, and regular metre was abolished along with regular government. Authority and fashion, elegance or arrangeinent, were hooted out of countenance, as pedantry and prejudice. Every one did that which was good in his own eyes. The object was to reduce all things to an absolute level; and a singu larly affected and outrageous simplicity and sentiment. prevailed in dress and manners, in style duced where it was least expected, someA striking effect prothing new and original, no matter whether good, bad, or indifferent, whether mean or lofty, extravagant or childish, was all that was aimed at, or considered as compatible with sound philosophy and an age of reason. powThe licentiousness grew extreme; Coryate's Crudities were nothing to it. The world was to be turned topsy-turvy; and poetry, by the good will of our Adamwits, was to share its fate, and begin de no

"Mr Wordsworth is at the head of that which has been denominated the Lake school of poetry; a school which, with all my respect for it, I do not think sacred from criticism, or exempt from faults, of some of which faults I shall speak with becoming frankness; for I do not see that the liberty of the press ought to be shackled, or freedom of speech curtailed, to screen either its revolutionary or renegado extravagances. This school of poetry had its origin in the French revolution, or rather in those sentiments and opinions which produced that revolution; and which sentiments and opinions were indirectly imported into this country in translations from the German about that period. Our poetical literature had, towards the close of the last century, degenerated into the most trite, insipid, and mechanical of all things, in the hands of the followers of Pope and the old French school of poetry. It wanted something to stir it up, and it found that something in the principles and events of the French Revolution. From the m. pulse it thus received, it rose at once from

vo.

of the world and of letters; and the DeuIt was a time of promise, a renewal calions, who were to perform this feat of regeneration, were the present poet-laureat. and the authors of the Lyrical Ballads, The Germans, who made heroes of robbers, and honest women of cast-off mistresses, had already exhausted the extravagant and marvellous in sentiment and situation; our native writers adopted a wonderful simplicity of style and matter. The paradox they set out with was, that all things are by nature equally fit subjects for poetry; or that if there is any preference to be given, those that are the meanest and leave the greatest scope for the unbounded most unpromising are the best, as they stores of thought and fancy in the writer's own mind. Poetry had with them neiits pendant bed and procreant cradle.' ther buttress nor coigne of vantage to make the cedar's top, and dallies with the wind, was not born so high; its aiery buildeth in and scorns the sun.' It grew. like a mush

It

On English Poetry.

8

room out of the ground; or was hidden in it like a truffle, which it required a particular sagacity and industry to find out and dig up. They founded the new school on a principle of sheer humanity, on pure

nature void of art.

It could not be said of

6

―――――

these sweeping reformers and dictators in the republic of letters, that in their train walked crowns and crownets; that realms and islands, like plates, dropt from their pockets; but they were surrounded, in company with the Muses, by a mixed rabble of idle apprentices and Botany Bay convicts, female vagrants, gipsies, meek daughters in the family of Christ, of ideot boys and mad mothers, and after them owls and night-ravens flew.' They scorned degrees, priority, and place, insisture, course, proportion, season, form, office, and custom in all line of order ;'the distinctions of birth, the vicissitudes of fortune, did not enter into their abstracted lofty, and levelling calculation of human nature. He who was more than man, with them was none. They claimed kindred only with the commonest of the people; peasants, pedlars, and village-barbers, were their oracles and bosom friends. Their poetry, in the extreme to which it professedly tended, and was in effect carried, levels all distinctions of nature and society; has no figures nor no fantasies,' which the prejudices of superstition or the customs of the world draw in the brains of men; no trivial fond records' of all that has existed in the history of past ages; it has no adventitious pride, pomp, or circumstance, to set it off; the marshal's truncheon, nor the judge's robe;' neither tradition, reverence, nor ceremony, that to great ones 'longs;' it breaks in pieces the golden images of poetry, and defaces its armorial bearings, to melt them down in the mould of common humanity, or of its own upstart self-sufficiency."

[July
leading authors, whose works were
either congenial to the taste of their
age, or had formed the predilection
which they continued to gratify, held
all subordinate spirits, as but minis-
tering powers, in their great function
of pleasing or edifying the generation
It has not, however,
around them.
been thus in the wonderful times
which we have seen;-the tram-
mels of authority in every thing have
been broken,-composition, which
formerly was regarded as a mighty
effort, is now considered as but the
amusement and relaxation of ingenious
minds; and while our most popular
authors produce their works with a
facility and frequency which were
formerly altogether unexampled, there
is no kind or form of their art which
some of our contemporaries have not
carried to very high excellence. The
graphic power and pure feeling of
the Lake School, have been ably con-
trasted by the manly vigour, and some-
times harsh majesty of Byron and
of Scott. The former of these authors
has chosen for himself a walk of ge-
nius, which had been almost untrod-
den by any former enthusiast. He
loves to muse, as it has been well
said, "amidst the ruins of the heart,'
and to gather the fragments of all
those hopes and aspirations which
either the evil destiny of the human
race, or the fateful tempest by which
individuals are assailed, have broken
and dispersed. His great compeer in
poetical glory has almost utterly dis-
regarded all the sadness of the soul;
and carrying back his readers to the
age of chivalry, has awakened all the
enthusiasm and gaiety of their natures,
by tales of armed knights, and castled
ladies,-deeds of gallantry,—and em-
battled armies. In a walk of fancy
different from both of these, Campbell
has long charmed the hearts of the
imaginative and tender, by the fine
enthusiasm which characterizes his
descriptions, and the high and ambi-
tious spirit of poetry that breathes in
every word which his muse has utter-
ed. Moore has transplanted all the
luxury of the East into the hardier
regions of this quarter of the globe;
and by the power of a brilliant and
active fancy, and a fine perception
of what is beautiful and happy, has
lulled his readers into something of
that delicious repose, which our earliest
reading had taught us to regard as

39

The passage is continued somewhat farther in the same strain, but we have already quoted enough to shew both the style in which it is written, and the object it has in view.

It were incorrect, however, to affirm, that the present age is characterized by the pre-eminent celebrity of any one school or taste in poetry. Nothing, indeed, is more remarkable in the literary history of these days, than the astonishing variety of forms which our poetry has assumed, and the difficulty which an unprejudiced critic would find in assigning the palm of excellence amidst the powerful claims of very opposite styles. In former times, one prevailing tone of imagination and of fiction appears to have been encouraged; and certain

- a the flowery gre

f an Asiatic wri be interested wh as by a minute tion barrors of life, sub y attempted pos lings, which bri sed as antipodes wh

ltimate sub- our g description. ma 2 he is something e serular and un- B hatever we may the merits either of ab

2

of the general an *f our poetry, it must

ra

very remarkable di for literature, wh the century which m vs distinguished fo periods, not only tie eminent authors th tents to the cul- ab but by the very CL which their ambi- fin the pursuit of h wach this art de- th

01

t

rown part, been a 1 sed with the doubts has expressed, re- e and perpetuity of w It is plain enough, t ms criticism, that he

ach under the fas- L h yet seems willing Others. He acknow

is highly of many svih have been proThe declares that verdict of posterity orization of our ether is he warranterity in condemnclearly evinces, in very much in a puziration which he les of his contempo sire of keeping a high ing shew of critical

9

te; and, accordingmany turnings to and arable exhibition of ed calls "face making," in this most instrucbt, very explicit aconst be absolutely ay body, twenty years any thing about any poets. Now, this te to be carrying the fr. Whether the

exclusively confined to the flowery arbours and purple sofas of an Asiatic garden; while Crabbe has interested the hearts of his readers by a minute description of the very horrors of life, and has not unsuccessfully attempted to elevate scenes and feelings, which were formerly regarded as antipodes to poetry, to the rank of legitimate subjects of most affecting description. Now, in all this there is something unquestionably very singular and unprecedented; and whatever we may judge concerning the merits either of particular authors, or of the general taste and style of our poetry, it must ever be regarded as a very remarkable fact in the history of our literature, that the opening of the century which is now advancing, was distinguished above all preceding periods, not only by the number of eminent authors who directed their talents to the cultivation of poetry, but by the very various paths into which their ambition had led them in the pursuit of that excellence which this art demands.

We have, for our own part, been a good deal amused with the doubts which Mr Hazlitt has expressed, respecting the merits and perpetuity of our present poetry. It is plain enough, we think, from his criticism, that he is himself pretty much under the fascination which he yet seems willing to destroy in others. He acknowledges that he thinks highly of many of the poems which have been produced in our days;-he declares that if he has not the verdict of posterity to sanction the canonization of our present authors, neither is he warrant ed by the same authority in condemning them ;-he clearly evinces, in short, that he is very much in a puzzle between the admiration which he feels for the talents of his contemporaries, and his desire of keeping a high hand and a becoming shew of critical authority over them; and, according ly, after a great many turnings to and fro, and a considerable exhibition of what he himself calls "face making," be at last settles in this most instructive, and, no doubt, very explicit avowal, that he cannot be absolutely certain that any body, twenty years hence, will think any thing about any one of the living poets. Now, this does appear to us to be carrying the joke a little too far." Whether the

"

VOL. III.

greater part of the poetry which is written now-a-days be of that kind which will for ever merit the approbation of mankind, is certainly a fair subject of discussion. Whether, supposing it to be in good taste, more brilliant poets may not hereafter arise, who will eclipse the splendours of our brightest luminaries, is also a matter about which people may conjecture, as their fancies dispose them. But whether it be a fact or not, that the present age has been most remarkably distinguished by the quantity, and, in many instances, by the high value of the poetry which it has produced, is, we should think, a question which no candid man will ever find much difficulty in determining; and, for our own parts, we have no hesitation in saying that we do not think the present age will be more remarkable in future times for any one circumstance belonging to it,-not even for the great political events which have occurred,—than for the quantity, the variety, and the unfettered spirit of the poetry which it has produced. We think, in short, that not only twenty years hence, but at a far greater distance of time, the present age will be pointed to, as one of the most brilliant in the literary history of this country; and whether or not mankind shall agree in placing our present authors on the same level with those of the first and second eras of our literature, we cannot entertain a doubt, that they will, at least, be unanimous in giving them a decided preference, for the true poetic fervour by which they are actuated, to all those who, during the last century, were considered as the finest spirits of their age.

We are quite aware, that, in delivering this opinion, we are liable to be considered as under a very childish fascination from the influence of living characters, and of all the bustle and brilliancy of recent publications. We know, however, that there is another and an opposite feeling which leads men to underrate the merits of contemporary authors; and in perusing Mr Hazlitt's remarks, we were strongly reminded of a saying of a townsman of our own, who happened to be in London when Dr Robertson's History of Charles the Fifth was published, and who was pressed with an encomium on its high merits, by a

R

« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »