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The task of selection is easiest in poetry. What a signal convenience is fame! Do we read all authors to grope our way to the best? No; but the world selects for us the best, and we select from these our best.
Chaucer fulfils the part of the poet, possesses the advantage of being the most cultivated man of his time, and so speaks always sovereignly and cheerfully. Often the poetic nature, being too susceptible, is over-acted on by others. The religious sentiment teaching the immensity of every moment, the indifference of magnitude, the present is all, the soul is God; this lesson is great and greatest. Yet this, also, has limits for humanity. One must not seek to dwell in ethereal contemplation : so should the man decline into a monk, and stop short of his possible enlargement. The intellect is cheerful.
Chaucer's antiquity ought not to take him out of the hands of intelligent readers. No lover of poetry can spare him, or should grudge the short study required to command the archaisms of his English, and the skill to read the melody of his verse. His matter is excellent, his story told with vivacity, and with equal skill in the pathos and in triumph. I think he has lines of more force than any English writer, except Shakspeare. If delivered by an experienced reader, the verses will be found musical as well as wise, and fertile in invention. He is always strong, facile, and pertinent, and with what vivacity of style through all the range of his pictures, comic or tragic! He knows the language of joy and of despair.
Of Shakspeare what can we say, but that he is and remains an exceptional mind in the world ; that a universal poetry began and ended with him ; and that mankind have required the three hundred and ten years since his birth to familiarize themselves with his supreme genius? I should like to have the Academy of Letters propose a prize for an essay on Shakspeare's poem, “Let
the bird of loudest lay," and the “ Threnos ” with which it closes ; the aim of the essay being to explain, by a historical research into the poetic myths and tendencies of the age in which it was written, the frame and allusions of the poem. I have not seen Chester's “Love's Martyr," and "the Additional Poems" (1601), in which it appeared. Perhaps that book will suggest all the explanation this poem requires. To unassisted readers, it would appear to be a lament on the death of a poet, and of his poetic mistress. But the poem is so quaint, and charming in diction, tone, and allusions, and in its perfect metre and harmony, that I would gladly have the fullest illustration yet attainable. I consider this piece a good example of the rule, that there is a poetry for bards proper, as well as a poetry for the world of readers. This poem, if published for the first time, and without a known author's name, would find no general reception. Only the poets would save it.
To the modern reader, Ben Jonson's plays have lost their old attraction ; but his occasional poems are full of heroic thought, and his songs are among the best in the language. His life interests us from the wonderful circle of companions with whom he lived, with Camden, Shakspeare, Beaumont, Fletcher, Bacon, Chapman, Herbert, Herrick, Cowley, Suckling, Drayton, Donne, Carew, Sel
and by whom he was honored. Cowley tells us, “ I must not forget Ben's reading : it was delicious : never was poetry married to more exquisite music:" and the Duchess of Newcastle relates, that her husband, himself a good reader, said he “ heard any man read well but Ben Jonson.”
Spence reports, that Pope said to him, “ Crashaw is a worse sort of Cowley: Herbert is lower than Crashaw," – an opinion which no reader of their books at this time will justify. Crashaw, if he be the translator of the Sospetto d'Herode,' has written masterly verses never learned from Cowley, some of which I have transcribed ; and Herbert is the psalmist dear to all who love
religious poetry with exquisite refinement of thought. So much piety was never married to so much wit. Herbert identifies himself with Jewish genius, as Michael Angelo did when carving or painting prophets and patriarchs, not merely old men in robes and beards, but with the sanctity and the character of the Pentateuch and the prophecy conspicuous in them. His wit and his piety are genuine, and are sure to make a lifelong friend of a good reader.
Herrick is the lyric poet, ostentatiously choosing petty subjects, petty names for each piece, and disposing of his theme in a few lines, or in a couplet ; is never dull, and is the master of miniature painting. On graver themes, in his “Sacred Numbers,” he is equally successful.
Milton's Paradise Lost” goes so surely with the Bible on to every book-shelf, that I have not cited a line; but I could not resist the insertion of the “Comus," and the “Lycidas,” which are made of pure poetry, and have contented myself with extracts from the grander scenes of "Samson Agonistes.”
The public sentiment of the reading world was long divided on the merits of Wordsworth. His early poems were written on a false theory of poetry; and the critics denounced them as childish. He persisted long to write after his own whim; and, though he arrived at unexpected power, his readers were never safe from a childish return upon himself and an unskilful putting-forward of
How different from the absolute concealment of Shakspeare in all his miraculous dramas, and even in his love-poems, in which, of course, the lover must be perpetually present, but always by thought, and never by his buttons or pitifulness! Montaigne is delightful in his egotism. Byron is alway's egotistic, but interesting thereby, through the taste and genius of his confession or his defiance.
Wordsworth has the merit of just moral perception, but not that
of deft poetic execution. How would Milton curl his lip at such slipshod newspaper style! Many of his poems, as, for example, " The Rylstone Doe," might be all improvised: nothing of Milton, nothing of Marvell, of Herbert, of Dryden, could be. These are verses such as many country gentlemen could write ; but few would think of claiming the poet's laurel on their merit. Pindar, Dante, Shakspeare, whilst they have the just and open soul, have also the eye to see the dimmest star, the serratures of every leaf, the test objects of the microscope, and then the tongue to utter the same things in words that engrave them on the ears of all mankind.
The poet demands all gifts, and not one or two only. Like the electric rod, he must reach from a point nearer to the sky than all surrounding objects, down to the earth, and into the wet soil, or neither is of use. The poet must not only converse with pure thought, but he must demonstrate it almost to the senses. His words must be pictures : his verses must be spheres and cubes, to be seen and handled. His fable must be a good story, and its meaning must hold as pure truth. In the debates on the Copyright Bill, in the English parliament, Mr. Sergeant Wakley, the coroner, quoted Wordsworth's poetry in derision, and asked the roaring House of Commons, "what that meant, and whether a man should have a public reward for writing such stuff?” Homer, Horace, Milton, and Chaucer would defy the coroner. Whilst they have wisdom to the wise, he would see that to the external they have external meaning. Coleridge rightly said that “poetry must first be good sense, as a palace might well be magnificent, but first it must be a house.” Wordsworth is open to ridicule of this kind ; and yet, though satisfied if he can suggest to a sympathetic mind his own mood, and though setting a private and exaggerated value on his compositions, and taking the public to task for not admiring his poetry, he is really a master of the English language ; and his
best poems evince a power of diction that is no more rivalled by his contemporaries than is his poetic insight. But his capital merit is, that he has done more for the sanity of his generation than any other writer.
“ Laodamia” is almost entitled to that eminence in his literary performance which Landor gave it when he said, that “ Wordsworth had now written a poem which might be fitly read in Elysium, and the gods and heroes might gather round to listen.” I count that and the “ Ode on Immortality” as the best.
Wordsworth has a religious value for his thoughts ; but his inspirations are casual and insufficient, and he persists in writing after they are gone. No great poet needs so much a severely critical selection of the noble numbers from the puerile into which he often falls. Leigh Hunt said of him, that “ he was a fine lettuce with too many outer leaves.”
Byron's rare talent is conspicuously partial. He has not sweetness, nor solid knowledge, nor lofty aim. He had a rare skill for rhythm, unmatched facility of expression, a firm, ductile thread of gold. His rhymes do not suggest any restraint, but the utmost freedom, as the rules of the dance do not fetter the good dancer, but exhibit his natural grace. In his isolation he is starved for a purpose ; and finding no material except of romance, first, of corsairs, and Oriental robbers and harems, and, lastly, of satire, he revenges himself on society for its supposed distrust of him, by cursing it, and throwing himself on the side of its destroyers. His life was wasted ; and its only result was this brilliant gift of song with which he soothed his chosen exile. I do not know that it can retain for another generation the charm it had for his contemporaries ; but the security with which he pours these perfectly modulated verses to any extent, without any sacrifice of sense for the sake of metre, surprises the reader.