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THIS little book may be said to proceed upon one assumption that in the effort to frame for ourselves an equable, a serene, in a word, a wise economy of life, there is no such assistance to be had as in the friendly counsel of the makers of literature: its aim is therefore to awaken an interest in poetical literature in general, and a special period in particular, and to stimulate thought, where that interest already exists.
I have been in large measure content to follow the beaten track made by critics in the past, and have preferred to incur the risk of censure by a repetition of much that has been already, perhaps, well and sufficiently said, to indulging in the fanciful ingenuities characteristic of modern literary essayists.
The short concluding chapter sketches only the broader aspects of the poetry of Tennyson and Browning; a detailed study-impossible here through lack of space-has already appeared in Messrs Methuen & Co.'s series under the title Victorian Poets.'
To Mr Symes, the editor, for his courtesy in connection with the publication of this book, and to Mr W. E. Wales, for his careful revision of the proof sheets, I have to return my best thanks.
To Dr Gwynn, Regius Professor of Divinity in the University of Dublin, I owe a greater debt than can here be fully acknowledged.
TRINITY COLLEGE, DUBLIN,
A SKETCH OF ENGLISH POETRY
FROM BLAKE TO BROWNING
POETRY AND ITS RELATION TO LIFE
'POETRY and criticism being by no means the universal concern of the world, but only the affair of idle men who write in their closets, and of idle men who read there.' This is how Pope, writing in 1716, felt it to be with poetry and criticism, that they were exclusively the affair of a comparatively small class, the leisured and cultivated few. The feeling of to-day is substantially the same. Readers have greatly increased in numbers since Pope wrote, but they have not, in any large proportion, come to care for poetry and criticism; they leave these, together with many other things, out of view, making no secret of their preference for that ephemeral literature which is of interest to-day, and is consigned to oblivion to-morrow. While, then, the newspaper is a matter of universal concern, poetry, although of immeasurably older, not to say nobler, birth, has never become so, and the promise that it will ever become so is
slight. Why is this? It is in part because there has always been, and still is, a wide-spread misapprehension of the nature and the office of poetry, or, in other words, of what poetry really is, and of what it can do for us. The critics have never made these things clear, but have, for the most part, darkened counsel with words. They have been content to address a minority which, in moments of foolish pride, is sometimes spoken of as 'a certain acute and honourable minority.' Criticism seems to have strengthened rather than dispelled the impression that poetry is a something altogether without weight or substance, a texture of light and air, like rainbow or sunset, pleasant to look upon, but, like them, incapable of being brought into any definite or profitable relationship with life. By many people poetry is thought to differ from science in this, that while the latter deals with facts, the former is concerned with abstractions; that while science is clear knowledge available for life, poetry is vague fancy available for no end, except, it may be, to feed the dreams of the indolent. In a practical age some apology for poetry is looked for. It is asked, 'Of what advantage is the study of poetry?' or 'What is it?' 'Is it a true thing?' But when the misapprehension spoken of is removed, apology will be idle; when once it comes to be clearly seen what the best poetry really is, and what it can do for us, nothing more will be needed. It will not be at all necessary to speak rapturously about it, to exalt its claims upon men's attention, or to trumpet the advantages accompanying a study of it in response to the trumpets that sound loudly on behalf of science. Although the poets are their own best apologists, there is still room for criticism, a criticism which shall address itself to those who, for some reason or other, have never felt drawn to poetical writings,
who speak of themselves as without a taste for poetry. Criticism addressed to this class would be invaluable, for many such persons as are here spoken of ask, in all sincerity, as they have a right to ask, wherein it will be to their advantage to give time and attention that have such serious and, we may almost say, inexorable demands made upon them, to give this time and attention to a study which seems to have no very definite issue. 'All about and around us,' said a recent writer, 'a faith in poetry struggles to be extricated, but it is not extricated.' And it is so. Among those who have made friends with the poets this faith, this confidence in poetry, is very marked. They are satisfied of its quite incalculable worth, conscious that nothing can take its place, and that it has a kind of magic virtue peculiar to itself; but with the vast majority of readers, 'a faith in poetry struggles to be extricated, but it is not extricated.' Lovers of poetry, indeed, wish that it were otherwise, and are willing to give their testimony in behalf of what they love; but while the minds of almost all men are so determinedly employed in other and far different directions, and, amid the tumult of voices proclaiming many gospels, to gain a hearing for the cause of poetry is not an easy matter. Poetry, we may safely say, will never attract the crowd, or draw to the seclusion of its shrine a multitude of devotees such as worship with passionate abandonment the great goddess Success, and so can never become, in any complete sense, a universal concern; but we may indulge the hope that by means of a wise criticism the confines of the poetic realm will be indefinitely extended, and the benign influences of its sovereignty experienced by an ever-growing number of subjects. Plato, when he made his famous indictment against the poets, and shut against them the gates of his